Whole Lotta Love

With tangled plots and double lives, Jersey romance writers tug countless heartstrings.

Mary Bly has two personas—Shakespearean scholar (left) and, under the pen name Eloisa James, romance novelist (right).
Photo by Nick Antony/Wonderful Machine.

Mary Bly had a secret. A Shakespearean scholar with degrees from Yale and Oxford, Bly was working toward tenure at Fordham University. But when she wasn’t teaching students the ways of the Bard, Bly slipped into her other skin, penning romance novels under the name Eloisa James.

“I didn’t tell anybody, not even friends I had in the department,” says Bly. Between classes one day, the Summit resident found out she had hit the New York Times best seller list. “I was running up and down the hallways and couldn’t tell anybody,” she recalls.

Like Bly, Caridad Pineiro is a successful romance novelist with no intention of giving up her day job. Piniero, who has written 21 romance novels, is a successful intellectual-property attorney.

Bly and Pineiro are among the many New Jersey writers whose romance paperbacks line bookstore shelves and, no doubt, will be turning up this summer in beach bags down the Shore.

New Jersey, it turns out, is a hotbed of hot-blooded scribblers, including one of the giants of the genre, Fern Michaels, who had five books with more than 500,000 in sales last year, according to Publishers Weekly.

The state’s chapter of the trade group Romance Writers of America has about 250 members. “They have one of the must-attend conferences in the RWA,” says Sarah Wendell of Montclair, co-author of  Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels (Fireside, 2000). She and Candy Tan also run the popular romance-industry website, smartbitchestrashybooks.com.

Trashy? Perhaps. Popular? Definitely. In 2007, romantic fiction generated $1.375 billion in sales and held the largest share of the consumer book market. Harlequin, the grand dame of romance publishers, celebrated its 60th birthday this year.

But these are not your grandmother’s bodice rippers. Today’s romances are more in tune with modern women and contemporary sensibilities, and come in many different forms. “There’s a million different subgenres,” says Wendell. “It has a courtship and it has a modern ending, but it is the journey from courtship to happy ending that makes them unique.”

Similarly, the writers are not love-lorn single ladies with twenty cats and bizarre visions of dreamy men. Often, they are professional women with full-time careers outside of romance writing.

For Pineiro, writing is something done while commuting between her home in Edison and Manhattan, where she is the first female partner in the law firm Abelman, Frayne & Schwab. She thanks her time on New Jersey Transit for her writing success.

Pineiro grew up reading gothic romances like Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, but she did not recognize her calling until she was in college. Working at a bookstore, she watched copies of Shanna (Avon, 1977) by Kathleen E. Woodiwiss fly off the shelves. “I picked up this book and said, ‘Wow, this is really interesting and is the kind of book I would like to write,’” she says.

So she kept reading and writing, and published her first book, Now and Always (Kensington 1999). Her latest, Fury Calls (Silhouette Books, a division of Harlequin, 2000) is a vampire love story.

Like a good lawyer, she is quick to defend the oft-maligned genre. “A lot of people misunderstand what’s in the books. Some of them have very serious issues. They speak to real life, emotional things that women enjoy and that women connect with,” says Pineiro. “Romances are entertainment, much like mysteries or even science fiction, which have predominantly male audiences. Yet the reality of it is, you don’t see anyone degrading mystery or science fiction in the way they do romance.”

Lois Winston also writes contemporary romances and women’s fiction. No bodice ripping—let alone bodices—in sight. The heroine of the Westfield writer’s latest novel, Love, Lies and a Double Shot of Deception (Dorchester, 2007) is a widow, but one who is not upset to see her late husband go. When she’s framed for his murder, she works with her love interest to find the real killer. No white knight sweeps in to save the day.

“Those first romances were the bodice rippers and involved rape scenes and young women being seduced by men old enough to be their fathers,” says Winston of 1970s and 1980s romance novels. “That’s not what romance is about today. Romance is about women taking charge and controlling their own destinies.”

Winston’s first book, Talk Gertie to Me (Dorchester) was published in 2006, but it was her dream vision of Love, Lies and a Double Shot of Deception that got her started in the genre. “It was like this chapter of a book that was unfolding every night,” she says. She wrote out the chapters as they came to her, all the while working full-time as a designer of needlework and fabric craft patterns for books and magazines.
She met her agent at the national RWA conference, which lead to Talk Gertie to Me. Later, she reshaped her dream book into Love, Lies and a Double Shot of Deception.

Bly’s entry into romance writing was not as simple. It certainly was not what her parents had in mind. Bly is the daughter of poet Robert Bly and author Carol Bly. Both parents frowned on her early attraction to the genre. “I always loved reading romance when I was a kid,” Bly says. Her parents made a pact with the budding scholar: She had to read a classic for every Barbara Cartland  novel (supplied to her by a grandmother). The young Bly also wrote plays, always with a romantic bent, that she performed for her parents.

Bly did not start writing romance novels until after she had earned her PhD. at Yale and a masters of philosophy from Oxford University. In a way, she was only being practical. Her husband, Alessandro Vettori, a professor of Italian at Rutgers University (and an Italian knight), declared they could not have a second child until Bly paid off her student loans. While on sabbatical, she split her time, writing an academic book, Queer Virgins and Virgin Queans on the Early Modern Stage (Oxford University Press, 2000), by day, and then switching gears after 4 pm to pen what would become her debut romance, Potent Pleasures (Delacorte Press, 2000).

Despite being a first novel, Potent Pleasures sparked a bidding war. The resulting deal with Delacorte Press covered Bly’s debts—and led to seventeen novels, with two more—This Duchess of Mine and A Duke of Her Own—due this summer. Bly’s current publisher, Avon, a division of HarperCollins, plans an ambitious 450,000-copy print run for each.

True to her scholarly background, Bly writes historical romances with precise Georgian-era renderings. She peppers her novels with classical references, like Shakespeare’s sonnets or works by Lord Byron (even if mocked, as in A Duke of Her Own). Her heroines are outspoken, even brash. They stand up for themselves, like a modern woman would do, although that might be out of step with the time period.

Bly did not come out of the closet as Eloisa James until after she was awarded tenure at Fordham. She revealed herself in 2005, lugging a box of Eloisa James books into a department meeting. “People went into shock,” she says. She still writes as Eloisa James but lives her double life openly. Last year, she addressed the Shakespeare Association of America; in July she will be a keynote speaker at the national RWA Conference in Washington, D.C. “Both careers are chugging ahead,” she says.

Jen A. Miller is South Jersey bureau chief for New Jersey Monthly. She’ll be chained to a beach chair by Nora Roberts’ Vision in White and Black Hills this summer.

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