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INTERVIEW: Anne Gracie, author of 'The Autumn Bride'

Thursday, February 14, 2013

I've always loved historical romance novels, ever since I read my mother's Georgette Heyer books to utter rags when I was a young teenager. I find that when I'm very busy and very tired - like I am now - I read a lot of romance. My favourite contemporary romance novelists is Australia's own Anne Gracie, and so I thought I would celebrate Valentines Day by chatting with her about the wonderful, warm-and-fuzzy world of romance fiction. 

Kate: Why do you think romance is such a popular genre of fiction?

Anne: Pure, feel-good escapism. The world can be a grim and stressful place and romance fiction provides an escape that guarantees you a happy ending. The story might take you on a wild journey, with danger and sad or scary moments, but no matter what dark places it might take you to, you know it'll finish well. That's a very appealing kind of escape.

Kate: Romance has many different sub-genres - romantic suspense, Regency romances, paranormal romance to name just a few. They each seem to have different conventions or tropes, and a different type of readership. Can you please give me a brief run-down on the various sub-genres and their tropes?

Anne: No, sorry. <g> I couldn't begin to do them all justice. The genre is constantly evolving and new sub-genres are appearing all the time. Let me just say there is enormous variety under the romance umbrella — pretty much any other genre can be combined with romance and as long as the development of the romance is a central part of the story, it's still regarded as romance. The best way to become familiar with the conventions is to read widely; that said, people are breaking conventions all the time.

The best advice I can give to anyone wanting to explore the romance genre and what it offers is to trawl the web, and the romance sites. And read the books. In Australia, there are romance specialist bookshops that you can browse and the assistants are generally great readers of romance and can advise you. Some will also will send out catalogues by post or email. 

Kate: My particular favourite sub-genre is historical romance, particularly Regency romance, which is what you write. What do you think is the appeal for this particular period of history?

Anne: It's a brilliant period for writers — wars, Napoleon rampaging around Europe, the industrial revolution and the growth in all kinds of knowledge, the glamor of balls and fabulous fashions, Almacks and gentlemen's clubs, aristocrats desperately trying to maintain their exclusivity in the face of the rise of the merchant class, the growth of the British Empire, desperate poverty and a surge in crime — this is when Australia was colonized, remember. You can write almost any kind of story you want. It's historical enough to feel exotic, but modern enough for modern audiences who know little of the period, to still feel at home.

For me personally, the Regency is a place I feel very comfortable in because I grew up on Georgette Heyer. Because of her and Jane Austen, the Regency novel is also associated with humour, which suits me, too.

The incomparable Georgette Heyer

Kate: What are the other 'hot' historical periods?

Anne: In the USA the Victorian era is very popular. In the early part of my career my English editor warned me off the Victorian era because she said it held dreary memories for everyone. But not in the USA. There it's seen as almost modern and very glamorous, with fabulous clothes and exciting inventions and suffragettes and adventure. And of course it ties into steampunk — yes there's steampunk and dystopian romance, and also paranormal historical romance.

The medieval period used to be very popular, and I'm still very fond of medieval romances, but some of the best medieval writers are now writing Regency historicals because that's what the market wants. (If you want a great medieval romance, try "By Design" by Madeline Hunter)

Kate: I've noticed many romance novels have the hero as the primary point of view. The book opens with  their POV, and the reader spends more than half of their time in his head. This puzzles me. I would have thought it was the heroine who should dominate the novel's 'screen time'.  Why do so many romance writers give so much space to the man's thoughts and feelings?

Anne: As I said, romance is a constantly evolving genre. In the past, the heroine's point of view (pov) ruled, and the hero was this distant, mysterious "other" whose thoughts and motivations and feelings the heroine (and the reader) could only guess at.  It made for some lovely tension, and some people mourn the passing of the single pov story.

But in the last twenty years or so, the male point of view has become incredibly popular. There are several reasons for this, I think. For a start, people have been going darker and darker in romance — pushing the boundaries. And if we consider character arcs, often the one who most needs to change, who most needs to confront his inner demons, the one who the story is really about, is the hero, usually because of damaging experiences in his past that have made him resistant or even actively hostile to the idea of love. 

Readers barrack for a happy ending, and if the hero seems completely surly and damaged and inexplicable and hostile, readers won't want the heroine to end up with him, and if his change seems superficial and convenient, they won't buy the happy ending. But if we can slip into his head and start to see what's driving him, and what's holding him back, and  feel how difficult this journey is for him — well, we're on his side and barracking madly. And it makes the happy ending that much more satisfying.

Using the hero pov allows the reader to experience the slow stages of the hero falling in love— suspiciously, reluctantly, fighting against it but unable to stop himself. Readers love that kind of journey. They also enjoy seeing the heroine through the hero's eyes — it's part of the romantic fantasy. For instance, my hero in The Perfect Rake is the only person in the story who doesn't see the heroine as little and dumpy and ordinary looking — he thinks she's the beauty of the family. Readers loved that.

Of course, as romance writers, we put the kinds of thoughts in men's heads that we want them to have. It's possibly not how they think at all, but it adds to the fantasy. And the fun.

Kate: Romance novels have been getting sexier and sexier. Some seem to have abandoned story for a string of sex scenes (not you! I think you have the perfect mix :))
Why do you think this is so? How do you judge how much is enough?

Anne: The horrid truth is, sex sells and the more it sells, the more people want it, so it's market driven. For me, the sexiness or otherwise of the story depends completely on the characters and the story. I don't find sex scenes easy to write, so they have to fit the story. Quite a few of my stories are marriage of convenience stories (a trope I'm fond of) and in that situation, sex plays an important part in the development of the relationship. My new book, by contrast, has only one lovemaking scene, right at the end. 

In the end, it's up to each individual author to decide how much is enough. I've heard that some publishers urge their authors to put more and more sex in, but that's never happened to me.

Kate: I've also noticed a lot of romance writers are now writing in series. Often the writer follows the romantic adventures of a whole family - the brothers or the sisters, or a combination of both. Why?

Anne: Again, this is market driven. People love to follow the fortunes of a family, and really, romance readers are a bunch of matchmakers who want practically everyone — sometimes even the villain, if he's a dashing sort of villain— to have a happy ending.  So they will write to the author begging for so-and-so's story.

It's also partly to do with not wanting to leave that particular world, so you follow each character through their own journey. Some fantasy series do that too. 

Kate: I do think humour is such an important ingredient in a successful romance novel. It can be hard to get the tone just right, however. How do you go about inserting humour into a story?

Anne: I don't really try to insert it, but it comes pretty naturally to me. I was always getting in trouble at school for inappropriate humour. The one time I set out to write a story with a brooding, dark and dangerous hero, a charming, flippant rake strolled onto the page instead, making me laugh. (The Perfect Rake.) So now I just go with the characters and the story, and some turn out light and funny and some are darker and more angsty. I don't seem to have a lot of control. 

Unless it does come to you naturally, I wouldn't advise anyone to try to make a story funny. Sense of humor is personal and variable and if you try too hard, and force it, you can get it horribly wrong. I have writer friends who will read my work in draft and they have excellent comedy instincts and will tell me if I've gone too far, or it doesn't work. 

Kate: I've always wondered why the heroes of romantic novels are often given such silly tongue-in-cheek names i.e. Lance, Rod, Steel etc. However, I recently read a blog which said the blogger found that the sillier the hero's name, the funnier the book. What do you think?

Anne: I haven't come across many as silly as that and I suspect that blogger or possibly the writer was slightly tongue-in-cheek — or simply having fun playing with some OTT tropes. I have seen a few surnames of the iron, steel and rock type. (Remington Steele, anyone?) and I wrote a series of short stories once that were very much tongue-in-cheek, starring Troy Hunkthighs, Clint Shoulderman and Miss Pouty Luscious. But it was all in fun. 

Names are important though, and no matter what the genre, authors choose character names to give a particular impression. I'm always looking for good names, as long as they fit the era and the country. For a hero, I want a name that sounds reasonably strong and masculine, but if I were foolish enough to name someone Lance O'Steele I'd deserve all the mockery I'd get. (Unless I made him one of Hunkthigh's mates, which I just might do.) My heroes have names like Gideon Carradice, Sebastian Reyne, Nicholas Blacklock, Dominic Wolfe, Gabriel Renfrew, Max Davenham... All pretty ordinary really.

Kate: Any tips you can give to someone wanting to write romance?

Anne: It's no different than any other genre — read widely until you find books in the genre that you love. Find authors whose writing you love and subgenres that excite you. Then write the very best book you can. The more you read and the more you write, the better your writing will get.

Also join Romance Writers of Australia. It's an organization that does a lot to promote good writing in the genre and supports writers on their journey to publication.
Romance Australia website's

Kate: Finally, is it true romance readers have better sex?

Anne: Of course. University tests prove it. 

An excellent reason to read more romance books! Thank you, Anne, for illuminating the romance genre for us.

Maureen Flynn commented on 14-Feb-2013 01:25 PM
I found this interview to be very illuminating and the last question made me laugh! Still, a bit of a missed opportunity to talk about feminism and the evolution of the romance genre perhaps?
Anne Gracie commented on 14-Feb-2013 01:46 PM
Maureen, yes, I could have gone into that more, I suppose. It's all part of the way romance has evolved to reflect the way women's position in society has evolved. Romance writers write for contemporary women, and contemporary expect more of their heroines.

I probably write with a slightly feminist awareness, but since my books are set in Regency-era England, I don't try to beat any kind of drum. I do, however, make my heroines strong and active in their own story.
Kate Forsyth commented on 14-Feb-2013 02:35 PM
I think it'd be historically incorrect to have your heroines beating a feminist drum, Anne. I think you show more of the truth of what women's lives were like when your heroines have to struggle against the strictures of their society - they chafe against having to go to the park accompanied by a footman, for example, or have great trouble finding work to support themselves. All of your heroines are intelligent and capable women who seek as much as possible to live a self-determined life. Its one of the things I love about Anne's books is this thread of women of strong character and wit, searching for ways to be happy. I wonder, Maureen, if you aren't talking about how the romance genre itself has evolved since Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters were writing it in the early 19th century?
If you had a chance, what question would you have asked Anne?
Maureen Flynn commented on 14-Feb-2013 03:49 PM
Kate: That's exactly what I meant yes- more specifically the ways that writers like Anne or yourself can now subvert the genre and/or use it to explore previously taboo topics because they were considered female gendered topics.

Anne: As a history major, I completely agree that you need to stay relatively anachronism free in a Regency setting and that means you need believable characters who act within the constraints of their society. By the same token, if an author used a historical setting as an excuse to continue to adhere thematically to Regency assumptions about men and women and their place in society I would feel pretty annoyed (I don't think that you do this by the way but just trying to clarify what I mean because there are many authors who do do this).

I guess what I meant was when you talked about looking at things from the male POV and writing sex scenes, that could have been an interesting opportunity to discuss the ways that authors such as yourself have been able to write about those things in a way that maybe previous writers couldn't and for example, when writing from both characters perspectives to highlight a meaningful relationship do you think about how that relationship will look in the end? There is a lot of controversy within the romance genre about whether or not romance is oppressive or freeing because it gives women a voice to discuss relationships and/or sex. These things were touched on but I would have been interested in hearing more- that's all I meant :)
Fi commented on 15-Feb-2013 12:33 PM
Loved the take on why heroes point of view, Anne. Shall save it. Loved The Autumn Bride xxFi

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