O Me of Little Faith

Last week’s unrelated posts on worship and forbidden words in Christian romances hit a wide audience and brought a lot of new traffic to this blog, and as a result I’ve been able to connect with some interesting new people. (Good job, Internets!) One of those is Tess Mallory, a fellow Texan. Tess makes her living as a romance novelist. A romance novelist who is a Christian…but not a “Christian romance novelist.”

And there is a difference, as you’ll see.

Since I like to use this space occasionally to talk to other writers about writing, I asked Tess if she’d mind being interviewed. She graciously obliged, and has some great things to say about being a Christian in an industry — romantic fiction — I don’t know much about. You’ll enjoy it.

First, a quick bio from Tess Mallory is the author of five time travel romances, a fantasy romance novella, and a futuristic romance. These include Highland Rogue, Highland Magic, Highland Dream, and Highland Fling (plus several others without “Highland” in the title). Tess lives in the Texas Hill Country with her husband and family, and when she’s not writing, she enjoys painting, creating designs with mosaic tiles, drinking foamy lattes and playing Scrabble.

JB: Hi, Tess. Thanks for doing the interview.

Tess Mallory: Hi Jason! Thanks so much for interviewing me. I love your blog. It always makes me think — and laugh!

Thank you. That’s always good to hear. Let’s talk about romantic fiction. Even though my dad attended high school with Jodi Thomas, I’m pretty far removed from the romance-writing world. What do I need to know about it?

The romance genre actually began in the early 19th century, when Jane Austen, the Brönte sisters, and other female writers of the day began creating stories that revolved around the relationships of men and women. But what most non-romance-reading people today still consider romance novels are either the small, category romances published by Harlequin, or more likely the romances that rose to popularity in the seventies. These books were often badly written and featured domineering men (sometimes rather violent) and submissive females. These books, with their “clinch” covers, helped cement the term “bodice rippers,” which has followed the romance genre ever since.

Um…you’re right. That’s exactly what I think about when I think about romance. I’m guessing I’m wrong? Please say yes.

Yes! In the late eighties, a new kind of romance reader, and writer, came to fruition. Strong female heroines — paired with strong, caring heroes — soon became the heart of the romance. A weak woman dependent on a man for her life and self-esteem, or an alpha male diminishing his woman with his arrogance, were banished to the past. Personal growth, self-confidence, empowerment, and independence became part and parcel of the romance novel, and these concepts have expanded and grown to the present day. Unfortunately, the present-day detractors of romance have most likely never read a present-day romance, and usually base their opinions on the stereotype of romances from the 70s.

Guilty. Not that I read romances or anything in the 1970s. In the 1970s, I was reading the Hardy Boys. What else can you tell me?

Well, writing a romance novel is just as hard as writing any other kind of novel, as is getting it published. The only reason it may be easier to get a romance published than other novels is because every major publishing house has at least one line of romance and usually several. There is a wide and I do mean W-I-D-E variety of romances out there in today’s market, as well as a wide variety of styles, authors, and content. Some are good, some are bad. Some are frivolous, some are heartfelt. Some are hot, some are not. Some even talk about God. Some talk about Satan. Just like in mainstream, science fiction, fantasy, thriller, horror, or even literary fiction, whether or not a romance is a good book depends not only on the talent of the author, but the subjective tastes of the reader, of course.

But there are specific rules that a book has to follow in order to be an official “romance,” right?

Yes. Here’s what the Romance Writers of America organization considers a romance: It has to have a central love story — you can include as many subplots as you want as long as the love story is the main focus. And it has to have “an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.”

Define the “emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.” What does that mean?

Here’s how the RWA defines it: In a romance, the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with emotional justice and unconditional love.

They also say this: Romance novels may have any tone or style, be set in any place or time, and have varying levels of sensuality—ranging from sweet to extremely hot. These settings and distinctions of plot create specific subgenres within romance fiction.

Here are some more fun facts: Romance fiction generated $1.37 billion in sales in 2008. It was the top performing category on the New York Times, USA Today, and Publishers Weekly best-seller lists. 74.8 million people read at least one romance novel in 2008. Romance fiction sales are estimated at $1.36 billion for 2009.

Wow. How did you get into this career? Can you give us the brief back story?

Brief? Me? It’s a convoluted story, but I’ll try. I never started out to write a romance, at least not in the beginning. I started my first book in the seventh grade. It was a western, and I remember the rush of joy I felt when I wrote the opening sentence and it actually sounded like something I would read in a “real” book. I ran out of steam on the fourth chapter, but the seed was planted, and somehow I knew I wanted to write novels.

I grew up, got married, started a family, and when I was in my early twenties, my grandmother gave me a copy of Matched Pearls, a Christian romance by Grace Livingston Hill. These roman
ces were set and written in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. When I had read all of GLH’s books, I began to read secular romances. I was a die-hard romantic, fascinated with Ireland and Scotland, where many of the historical romances I read were set. I began to think about writing romances.

In the meantime, I had written a different kind of book — a Young Adult time travel (yes, I was a geek, a romantic geek). I had been fascinated with time travel — the paradoxes, the questions, the possibilities — ever since I saw Back to the Future, Somewhere in Time, and an episode of Star Trek. (Yes, I was a Trekkie too. A romantic, geeky, Trekkie.) Then I read a book by Jude Devereaux called A Knight in Shining Armor — one of the first time-travel romances ever written — and I became hooked on the idea of combining love and science fiction. So I wrote a time-travel adventure for the Young Adult market and called it Jewels of Time.

But I was new at this game, and when I finished the book and looked around for a publisher to submit it to, I found out I had goofed. This book was not really a YA. The ages of the main characters were just a little too old, and it was way too romantic for a YA novel. (At the time. Boy, if only Twilight had been around then, I’d have had a market for it!). I chalked it up to a learning experience and put the manuscript under my bed.

Not long after, while reading Romantic Times magazine, I saw a blurb that made my heart beat faster — Dorchester Publishing in New York was looking for manuscripts for time-travel romances! BOING! I got out my YA, rewrote it, and sent it to Dorchester. They bought it. I couldn’t believe it. I had sold a book! Then I sold Dorchester another TT. And another. And suddenly I had a career as a romance author.

So far I’ve written eight romance novels and one novella which include seven time-travel romances, one futuristic romance, and one novella included in a romance fantasy anthology. The last two books were with Berkley (Penguin/Putnam Books) and I’m working on the third in the trilogy. I’ve also written stories for Highlights for Children, several plays, a Christian musical, a children’s musical (lyrics and book), and have written human interest features for a variety of small-town Texas newspapers over the years.

Your recent work takes on something of a sci-fi/paranormal theme. What’s behind that?

I’ve always loved science fiction and fantasy, largely because of my father. My dad was an engineer for General Dynamics, and loved SF. One of the first bedtime stories I ever remember him reading me was I, Robot. I loved Robby the Robot. I still love robots. My dad also invented his own tales of fairies and dragons for me, and I grew up with a love of fantasies and science fiction and storytelling. It makes sense that there are very few ideas that come to me now as a writer that don’t have some kind of SF or fantasy twist to them. Paranormal is a new toy to play with, but more on that later.

When I got serious about my writing as an adult, one of my first goals was to write a Star Trek novel! I did eventually submit one and got good feedback, but was ultimately turned down, so I decided to write the “book of my heart” — a futuristic Christian novel. I was so excited when Thomas Nelson Books asked to read it. They kept it for two years before they finally turned it down. That was quite a disappointment. (I still like that book and plan to rewrite it one of these days.)

What are the biggest misconceptions about romantic fiction?

How about I give you bullet points?

Go for it.

  • Romances are still like they were in the seventies, where many times the heroine was subjected to basically what amounted to sexual assault. Hence the term “bodice-ripper.”
  • All romances are pornographic.
  • All romances focus primarily on sex and sexual desire.
  • All romances are badly written.
  • All romances are trashy.
  • All romances have no plot.
  • All romances contain sex.
  • Only uneducated people read romances.
  • Only uneducated people write romances.
  • Authors of romances are rich.
  • It’s easy to get a romance published.
  • It’s easy to write a romance.
  • Women read romances because they are frustrated with their husbands, and/or their sex lives.
  • Romance writers are wild and promiscuous. (We aren’t. I promise. We are mostly stay-at-home moms and grandmothers.)
  • Romance writers have lucky husbands.


Thanks, Tess. Come back tomorrow for part two of our interview, in which Tess and I discuss snobbery from other writers toward her genre, and she dishes on the stereotypical cheesecake cover art. Also on the menu? The challenges of being a Christian who writes romance novels for a secular publisher, and whether or not her characters have sex.

Yes. I am such a tease.

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