O Me of Little Faith

Here’s Part 2 of my interview with romance writer Tess Mallory, who has written several time-travel romances and, over the past couple weeks, has become a frequent commenter on this blog. That’s Tess below, with her granddaughter.

Read Part 1 of the interview here. Below, in Part 2, Tess talks about cheeseball romance cover art, the detrimental restrictions placed on writers of Christian romance novels, and spills the beans about writing sex scenes.

Are you hooked yet? You should be.

JB: Do you ever deal with–for lack of a better word–“snobbery” from other writers who might view genre fiction as somehow lesser than other types of writing?

Tess Mallory: I must smile. OH, YEAH! In spite of romances hitting the NYT Bestsellers list with frequent regularity, because of the leftover stigma that comes from the stereotypical view of romances, romance authors must face the fact that “We don’t get no respect.” Male science-fiction writers seem to have the most disdain for us, which makes me very sad, since I love SF, and consider my books action-adventure SF novels which just happen to be romances as well.

What really upsets me sometimes is that I often get treated–to my face–like a dim-witted dum-dum. Without sounding arrogant, I want to assure you that I’m not. I spend vast amounts of time researching historical data to make sure I get details correct. I could probably have a doctorate in Scottish history by now if I had just stayed in school instead of following my heart. So there. I’m not dumb, though I am sometimes blonde.

I want to know about the stereotypical cheesecake romance-novel cover art. How do you really feel about it? What do we NOT know about it?

Well . . . I don’t know many romance authors who like the cheesecake covers, but in our business, we have learned to be happy if we get pretty covers with people on them who actually look like people and not gargoyles. Not that we get any say in the matter. The covers of our books are TOTALLY chosen and created by the publishing house and their art department. They follow the trends of book buyers and retail buyers, and probably focus groups at the mall — not the opinions of authors. Apparently for many years, heterosexual mall-shopping women liked to buy books with scantily clad women on the cover, but now The Powers That Be have decided women like to buy books with scantily clad men on the cover, which is a little closer to the truth.

My publisher is kind enough to let me fill out a little questionnaire that hopefully ensures the person on the cover has the correct hair color and that his/her clothing is appropriate to the time period in which the story is set. Many of my covers have been pretty, but one was absolutely beautiful–a gorgeous redheaded woman in a medieval gown superimposed against the dark background of a Scottish castle. It was mysterious and intriguing. The colors were rich, beautiful, and the whole thing was the epitome of class! If only I hadn’t named the book Highland Fling. Kind of ruined the effect.

As a Christian, what is most challenging about your career/industry?

I think my biggest challenge is in knowing that a lot of Christians judge me for what I write. This makes me very sad at times. But I believe God opened this door for me, and has used my books to connect me with people all over the world (Yay, Internet!). The emails I receive from my readers are heartwarming, and sometimes heartbreaking. Knowing that I have given an invalid woman in Pennsylvania a smile with one of my books is a great blessing to me. Knowing that a woman who just lost her husband was reminded of him by the hero in one of my books and felt closer to him because of it–that makes me cry. Also, through these emails and letters, I’ve been given the opportunity to share my faith with a great many of my readers, and that has been pretty darn awesome! (Can I say ‘darn’?)

Every romance writer handles the “love” in her books differently. For me, I’m happy to say that the couples in my books are in love, in a committed, monogamous relationship with one another, never cheat on one another, and never betray one another. Sometimes they are dumb, sometimes they are smart, but they always grow as a couple, and as individuals during the course of the book. I don’t pretend that I’m writing instructions for brain surgery here, but I do know that there is value in what I do. My books are humorous, intelligent, and always leave the reader feeling encouraged and uplifted.

I know what you want to ask: “But do they have sex?”

That’s EXACTLY what I wanted to ask.

Yes, they usually have sex. Let the stoning commence.

Not being without sin, I’ll have to put my rock down. Is it hard to write the sex scenes?

In the romance world they are called love scenes, because the focus is not on the sex, but the relationship between the two people. Having said that, love scenes are always hard for me to write. Not because I’m a Christian, but because it’s hard to write a love scene that isn’t, well, awkward. There is a fine balance between the emotion and the physicality of the scene when you try to describe lovemaking, and it’s difficult to achieve.

But when people ask that, you know they’re asking, “Is it hard for you AS A CHRISTIAN to write the sex scenes?” Because obviously Christians aren’t supposed to do that kind of thing. Right?

Yes. The real question is: How can you be a Christian and write love scenes in your books? Are you really a Christian? Do you really even believe in the Bible and God and Jesus?


How do you answer them?

I’m not sure how to explain it. I’ve never had a problem with writing love scenes because of my beliefs, and I’ve never felt like I was on God’s naughty list because I wrote them. I do know it causes other Christians to make certain judgments about me, and that does bother me. I guess I look at it like this: This is fiction and my readers are adult women. I have enough respect for these women not to worry that one of my books is going to cause them to have premarital sex. I don’t think I have that kind of power over their lives.

I will admit–my love scenes are considered pretty tame in the overall scheme of romances. Although many romance writers want their books to be known for the sizzling hotness of their love scenes, I want mine to be known for the adventure, humor, history, romance, and fun they contain. And good writing, I hope!

I’m guessing you get asked pretty frequently why you just don’t write Christian romances. What’s your usual answer to that? (Based on your reaction to my “naught
y words” post
earlier, I think I know.)

Now when I’m confronted with this question, I can refer them to your blog, Jason, and the “guidelines” set forth by certain organizations, which effectively condemn Christian romances to a life more unreal than any science fiction or fantasy ever written. The reason I don’t write Christian romances is that I don’t see the point. Here’s the deal: The people in these books are apparently perfect. They never curse, they never envy, they never lust, they never make love, in OR out of marriage, and worst of all–they never struggle with, well, much of anything outside of some evil non-Christian stalking them or doing other unchristian activities. I have a problem with this.

I know for a fact that all Christians struggle with stuff. With life, with family, with relationships and even–yes–even their faith at times. Belief in Jesus is not a giant bandage for our lives, because unfortunately, we’re still human. We still struggle, but we have that perfect Hope to sustain us. But in these books, there is nothing to struggle against, because these people don’t sin. They are cardboard characters, and that’s all they can be, because of the restrictions placed on the writers.

I know that the purpose of Christian romances is to give women books to read that are “clean,” which means devoid of any of the realities of life. Sort of like a Disney cartoon.

It’s not just about the absence of love scenes, then.

It’s about much more than the attitudes and restrictions about sex in the books–I promise! I am talking about this sanitized version, if you will, of Christian life. This need for Christian characters to wear a mask of piety. Do we really have to do this? Even in a book written for Christians?

Sorry. I feel passionately about this. (Is it okay if I say “passionately”?)

Yes. This is a safe place for such strong language.

Wouldn’t a Christian romance mean more if a character was searching for something–faith, morals, the love they lost when they lost their faith, answers to prayer, a need to find a mate, need to have a child when infertile? There are sooooo many awesome possibilities, but the restrictions of The Powers That Be (and I don’t mean God) prevent this from happening.

Please note, I am in no way criticizing the women who write Christian romances. I am criticizing the restrictions imposed upon these women who only want to serve God with their writing.

In one of my books, one of my characters talked about the relationship of Christ and the Church and how it relates to marriage! If a secular romance editor can allow that, it really makes me wonder about the restrictions on Christian romances. What are TPTB afraid of, really?

I’m happy to say, however, that the hero and heroine in the proposal I’m currently working on are married at the beginning of the book. So now everyone can enjoy their love scenes and not feel guilty about it.

No? Aw, gosh darn it. (Can I say “gosh darn it”?)

No. You can’t say that. I have to draw the line somewhere. Just a couple more questions. What are your writing habits?

Arrgh. I feared you would ask this. I currently have TERRIBLE writing habits. I used to be a “write everyday” girl, and I tell my students in my workshops to do this. It is truly the best way to get a book written in a timely manner, and also, I think, the ONLY way to refine and polish your skills. Life has interrupted my once daily routine in a variety of ways that I won’t go into, but Stuff Happens, and a writer has to learn to work in spite of Stuff. I am just now, after a few years of Stuff Happening, getting back into a routine of writing some–even a hundred words–every day. So the answer to your question is, I’m in the process of relearning some good old habits!

Who are your favorite authors (any genre) and why?

My favorite author right now is Donald Miller, and I’m not just saying that because this is a Christian website. I love his work. I love his sincerity and his realness. Searching For God Knows What is beautiful and renewed my longing to write Christian fiction and nonfiction in a real and meaningful way. I also like that guy, Jason Boyett’s blog, and want to read his books.

(Blush.) Your taste is impeccable.

Some of my all time favorites include Isaac Asimov, Margaret Weis, Jennifer Crusie, and of course, Grace Livingston Hill. I’ve read the Twilight books too, Jason. I enjoyed them. J.K. Rowling will always be an inspiration to me, as will C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and Madeline L’Engle. Recently, I’ve read fun books by Rosemary Clement-Moore, Julie Kenner, and Cat Adams. I’m currently reading Green by Christian novelist Ted Dekker. I have a question though — why does he get to say “whore” in his books, but Christian romances can’t say “darn”?

Clearly he has a special dispensation for that sort of thing. What’s next for you, writing-wise? What are you working on now?

Right now I’m working on a proposal for my next time travel romance for Berkley (Penguin/Putnam) Books and the last in my Highland trilogy. Side note: My last five books have had the word “Highland” in the title to let the buyer know right off the bat that this book takes place in Scotland, a very popular setting. The first two in this series were Highland Rogue and Highland Rebel and I’m trying to think of the title for the third. I’ve finally settled on the working title of Highland Mackerel but it’s making my agent a little nervous. I’m taking suggestions!

Maybe my blog readers can help with that. They’re good with titles.

I’m also ready to start doing a little more diversifying in my writing career. I have a Young Adult novel in progress, and a good old space opera SF that I’m excited about. I’m also working on — yes, I’m saying it — a Christian paranormal novel. It has vampires and stuff in it. Yeah, I know. I’m bound to get banned and unlikely to get it published. Every time I think about this book I remember Donald Miller telling the women at the Christian writers conference (in SFGKW) that he wan
ted to write a book about a nun who went into foreign countries and overthrew dictators. I think he might like my Christian vampire book.

Seriously, (well, I am serious, I am writing on a Christian paranormal novel and I do hope Donald Miller likes it), I have a longing to write a book that will express what I feel God has been talking to me about for quite a while now. We’ve gotta learn to be real, as Christians. We’ve been wearing these silly masks for too long. The party line has told us for a hundred years that in order to win people to Christ, we have to wear masks of feigned perfection. The truth is, non-Christians are scared of our masks, and of us. (More than vampires, even!) If we could take the masks off long enough to just love our neighbor as ourselves, we might lead a few people to Christ. We are not the perfect ones! There can be only One.

(Sigh. Yes, I used to watch “Highlander.”)

Me, too! Thanks for the honest, thought-provoking interview, Tess. It’s been fun and educational. Good luck with the new book!

Thanks so much, Jason. I’ve enjoyed being on your blog, and as we say in Texas, I hope God blesses you real good!


Do you have any questions for Tess? Title suggestions for her new Highland _______ novel? Leave them in the comments.

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