“We rule the book-reading world”: Catherine Robertson reports from the Romance Writers of New Zealand annual conference.
“Charlotte Stein writes the best cunnilingus scenes. And I’m a gay guy. Think about what I’m saying.”
Damon Suede cannot shock his audience. This is the Romance Writers of New Zealand annual conference, held recently at the Novotel Ellerslie in Auckland. Most delegates have written their own muff diving scenes and will be checking out Ms Stein to see how hers compare.
The conference is Friday to Sunday, and the whole of Friday is dedicated to one guest speaker, who’ll instruct us on craft. Damon is this year’s. He’s travelled from the US with his husband, Geoff, a bona fide forensics investigator for the FBI, who’s an expert on arson, autopsies and blood spatter. Geoff’s workshop is tomorrow. It’s booked solid.
“Have you heard me speak before? Great! You’re virgin cerebellum.”
Damon grew up in the anus of right-wing America. He wrote a thesis on anti-humanist pornography in the French Enlightenment. He’s been a script and theatre writer for 27 years, and has recently branched out into gay romance novels, latest title, Slow Poke. He speaks at bullet train speed, and references everyone from pulp fiction master, Dwight Swain, to Balzac. We bounce from ‘‘For those of you who don’t like Hegel, don’t sweat it” to “I have a whole presentation on hymens.”
He delivers PGR-rated writing advice. “Who gives a shit about Lady Macbeth’s first name? Irrelevant details are the La Brea tar pit for authors.” “Grammar is your money tree. Shake it and orgasms fall from it.” “Reach down the throat of a sucky character, grab their butthole and pull them inside out.” “DO NOT ALLOW ANYONE TO HAVE SEX WHILE SLAUGHTERING AN ANIMAL!”
We love it.
But who are ‘we’? Who’s in this 150-strong audience?
This is who: doctors, lawyers, company directors, caregivers, musicians, chartered accountants, university lecturers, Christian editors, a former finalist in the Entrepreneur of the Year, a current finalist in the Women of Influence, and two alpaca farmers. Most of us are aged between 35 and 65, and are tertiary educated. We have children and we don’t have children. There are 40 Australians, who’ve flown over specially.
We’re predominantly women. Some of us are gender neutral and six are men. We’re all shapes and sizes, from tall and glamorous to proudly “short, fat and Scottish”. There are tattoos, and not always on whom you’d expect.
We like to dress up. The Friday night cocktail party is music themed. Kendra comes as Freddie Mercury in the I Want to Break Free video, complete with moustache and vacuum cleaner. Melissa has stuck a real safety pin through her nose. Simon has on blue suede shoes that he already owned. He agrees it’s a poor effort.
Half of us are published, and we don’t distinguish between traditional print and self-publishing. In our world, that ship has long sailed.
And we’re earning income from our writing, anywhere from pin money to six figures a year. Another special guest, self-publishing superstar Bella Andre, has sold seven million books. She earns a 70% royalty off each book’s retail price, which is US$4.99. How’s them apples?
Bella is an athletic Californian with a degree in economics from Stanford. She wanted to be a rock musician. She got a publishing contract instead and spent too many years “at the bottom of the most bottom feeding place in the book industry”.
In 2008, her publisher dropped her. In 2010, she started self-publishing. She is now one of the highest paid authors in the world.
Before you leap to load that e-pub file, be warned: success like this requires a fuck-ton of work.
“You’re running a business.” she tells us. “You wear three hats: writer, publisher and marketer. You need to get comfortable with advertising platforms, that’s the world now. You need to understand pricing and presentation. Do your research so you can make smart decisions. Don’t get distracted. Don’t chase trends. The only way you’ll miss the boat is by not being on it.”
We’re peppered with strict orders.
“I’m not right about a lot of stuff in the rest of life. But when it comes to self-publishing, I am right all of the time.”
And we listen, because that’s the goal of everyone here – to make a living from writing. We all have a shot at achieving it. This is a multi-billion dollar industry, and romance writers earn an average of 170% more than their peers. Across the world, a Harlequin title is sold every three seconds. They are one of many publishers.
It is not our goal to make art. That doesn’t mean what we create has no value.
American historical romance author Grace Burrowes has a Mary Beard vibe about her. Long, grey hair, casual clothes, fierce intellect. She is a former child protection lawyer.
“I thought I had thick skin before I started writing for publication.” Grace’s Sunday morning keynote speech is on how to survive the shit that showers down on romance writers. She speaks like a bartender in a Western movie, who’s seen it all and won’t be hurried.
“Avoid pothole people who derail your joy and steal your fire. Avoid expressive language prima donnas, ‘all hat and no cow’ as my grandma would say, who make it all about them.”
She warns against “concepts loose in the water supply that are not helpful. Don’t give in to scarcity. Channel your fear into more productive emotions. If a cop gives you a speeding ticket, put them in a book.”
We need to value our time. “How many of you are raising children – and all children under 40 are still being raised by us? How many of you have a job? Run a household? Have elders to care for?”
Every hand is up by now.
“And we’re supposed to have a writing career too. No wonder we’re cranky.”
If we’re seriously struggling, Grace insists we should get our behonkus into therapy.
“Do you have behonkus here?”
We do now.
Grace’s main message is: have strong support networks. Already there. Romance Writers of NZ (RWNZ) is, hands down, the most active, generous and warm-spirited writing community to be part of. Several of us here don’t even write romance. We stay with this group and attend these conferences because there is nothing else like it. Nothing.
It’s so much fun. “Can everyone who writes for Entangled see Janet in the break? She wants to gossip with you.” “OK, sure, it might involve a cock the size of a wine bottle.” “A woman has just been snapped driving on the Northern Motorway while reading a book. Who went home for lunch?”
It’s inclusive. I read my friend Jackson’s Pantograph Punch essay on how hard it is to be a queer writer and wished they were at Conference. The romance world is also far too white and straight, but it’s opening up quicker than most genres. Gillian, Ada and Jamie’s workshop was entitled ‘Beyond Pronouns: Writing Rainbow Romance in the 21st Century.’ You can write straight sex, queer with a kink, or no sex at all. You can write sex with bear-people and archangels and that’s not even the weird stuff. There’s a place for everyone.
It’s tirelessly supportive. Across our networks on a daily basis, we champion each other’s books, and share successes, hot tips and fuck-ups. As Grace put it, “Our world is one of abundance, co-operation and courage. We reject scarcity. We know a rising tide lifts all boats.”
It’s kind. Grant couldn’t attend the last conference because he had a stroke. This year he made it, but the effects are still evident. Three women came to his hotel room to help him dress for the big awards dinner on Saturday night. Turns out we fight off stalkers, too. Random creep in a toupee hit on one of our delegates. Kendra gave him what for and had him escorted from the hotel. Like a lion, she was.
It’s high-achieving. New Zealand romance writers are exceptionally good. We regularly crack international bestseller lists, including the New York Times’. At our Saturday awards dinner, Brynn Kelly got special mention as the first RWNZ member to win a RITA, the romance writing equivalent of an Oscar. We’re hard workers. This conference – the whole of RWNZ – is run by volunteers. Kendra was the power behind this year’s event and she still found time to make a Freddie Mercury costume.
It’s big-hearted. Speakers at our conferences don’t do their thing and retreat to their hotel room. They hang out with us, in breaks, in the bar afterwards, surrounded by a crush of delegates wanting guidance and pep talks. We give back by being the greatest audience ever. By the end, we are in love with all our speakers and they with us. There’s a lot of hugging at our conferences. Romance writers aren’t shy.
And we’re in love with our genre. Passionately, joyously so. Which in some people’s eyes would make us morons. Creators and consumers of formulaic Mummy porn. Of unreadable trash.
When he was awarded an OBE for services to literature, Terry Pratchett claimed that the greatest service he’d performed was never to write any. Literary fiction is it own thing. It has its own expectations, standards and practices. If it were food, it’d be French haut cuisine, or deconstructed, molecular gastronomy with microgreens. It would not be a cup of tea and a scone.
Comparing romance to any other type of fiction is to completely miss the point of it. You don’t read romance the way you read other books. You read for the same reason it can be brilliant to sit down with a cup of tea and a scone. It’s a comforting break that makes you feel better about being in the world.
Grace Burrowes credits her desire to be a romance author to a bad patch in her 20s.
“I had an illegitimate daughter, a thyroid condition and Lyme’s disease. I was self-employed, my mortgage two month’s behind. It was grim sailing.”
Her escape was romance novels, an hour a day where she could enter a hopeful place.
“No nutrient was more important to my wellbeing” – she emphasises each word – “than what Loretta Chase was writing.”
This is what we do. This is the experience we give: hope, comfort, emotional nutrition. And we won’t waste time or energy defending it because we don’t need to give a shit what the romance-ignorant think. Our tribe is loyal and it is legion. We rule the book-reading world.
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Romance writers have a potential audience of millions, all over the world. We can do it ourselves, if we want to wear those other hats of publisher and marketer. We can make a handsome living. We are part of a generous, joyous community. This is our choice.
Just so you know, dukes, cowboys and older heroines are big right now. And cottages. It’s all to play for.
The next Romance Writers of NZ conference is being organised by Melissa, Iona and Joanne. It will be in Christchurch, August 23-25, 2019. Info at romancewriters.co.nz
Catherine Robertson does not write romance – yet. Her latest novel Gabriel’s Bay (Black Swan, $38), is available at Unity Books. Its sequel What You Wish For is out next January.
The Spinoff Review of Books is proudly brought to you by Unity Books.