Interviewed by Josephine Yu
Mary Bly, a Shakespeare scholar with degrees from Oxford and Yale, is associate professor and head of the Creative Writing program at Fordham University in New York City and the author of Consuming London: Mapping Plays, Puns, and Tourists in the Early Modern City (Oxford 2000). She is part of a prestigious writing family: her father is the poet Robert Bly, winner of an American Book Award; her mother is the writer Carol Bly; and her godfather is the Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet James Wright. So what is perhaps most surprising about Mary Bly is her double life as Eloisa James, the New York Times bestselling author of historical romance novels that defy the conventions and stereotypes of the genre with impotent heroes, overweight heroines, literary allusions, surprising plots, and elegant and witty writing. Her most recent book is A Duke of Her Own.
In this interview, which took place at her home in Summit, New Jersey, in May 2008, Mary Bly discusses the Internet’s influences on serial novels, her famous parents’ influence on and reactions to her romance novels, the stigmatization of the romance genre, how she pushes the boundaries, and why Shakespeare is the very best romance writer.
Q: I was impressed by how much interaction you seem to have with your readers. You have a great website that not only provides information about your books but also has a forum where fans can talk to each other and ask you questions, which you answer. Does your interaction with readers influence your writing?
A: The Internet has really changed the nature of the book itself. Think about Dickens sitting in his study writing those serial books, which is something I aim at. This series [Desperate Duchesses] has six books. I want to create that same sense of anticipation, the same sense of longing to know what the overarching story is. So, in this series there are overarching characters and there’s a small plot that’s resolved in every book, but there are also small mysteries that don’t get resolved and won’t get resolved until the end. In the first book, who was Jenny’s mother? You’re not going to find out until the sixth book, in which all those mysteries will come together.
My readers write to me constantly and say, “I really like this character. I know what’s going to happen to him. This is what’s going to happen.” I have certain things I know are going to happen, that I decided long ago, but things can change the way you think about a character. Take an example from my last series [The Essex Sisters]. When I wrote Much Ado About You, I had four sisters, and the youngest was very young. I really didn’t think too much about her; I just made her like myself in high school. I figured I would deal with her later. Well, I got more mail about Josie from the first book than I got about all the other characters. This changes irrevocably the way you think about a given character. I thought that she was thirteen or fourteen and I might do something with her later. But I got many letters saying, “She’s me! I know what she’s like. Here’s this awful thing that happened to me, and here’s this really neat thing that happened to me.” I didn’t have to borrow their humiliating experiences; I had plenty of my own in high school. But I thought, this is really striking a chord. So I gave her one of those things that had happened to me. Then I get more and more letters, and then she’s got her own fan club. And now I’m facing a kind of conundrum that I don’t think Dickens ever faced. He wouldn’t have gotten so many letters that you have to be very, very careful about how you’re creating this character from now on because people have become personally bound to her. Psychologically, I wanted to both honor them and honor her, and it made the last book difficult.
Another example is The Earl of Mayne, who appeared in the previous series, The Duchess Quartet. As far as I was concerned, he was over and done with—until he got what was called Mayne’s Army. Mayne’s Army kept writing me and saying “We love him! We love him!” That was the only character that jumped series; he jumped out of the old series and into the new series because at that point Mayne’s Army had made up their own t-shirts and baseball hats.
Q: I’m glad they did because Pleasure for Pleasure is my favorite of your books. And you know what I was thinking was different about it? The story isn’t given away on the back cover.
A: No, I try not to do that. That’s a constant struggle. And that was a huge fight for the back of that book.
Q: The synopsis on the back of that one is almost misleading. Could you do that on every book?
A: It’s so hard. They won’t do it.
Q: The publisher? Why do they want to reveal everything that’s going to happen?
A: It makes them extremely nervous not to tie down immediately who the hero and heroine are. But given the way my books progress, tying down who the hero and heroine are before the person reads the book is really not something I want to do. For example, in Duchess by Night the heroine cross dresses as a man. I do Shakespeare day in and day out. This is a plotline I’ve been playing with for a long time. I didn’t want that in the plot synopsis on the back. I lost. It’s on the back.
Publishers are, I think, necessarily a conservative force within marketing. What’s worked is what’s going to work. They have to tell people this is going to work. So it’s a constant balancing act between the two of us—for me not to go too far in one direction and for them to push me back. I have an excellent editor, Carrie Feron, who is the vice president for HarperCollins Avon. One of the ways in which we work together is that I tend to push toward the boundaries of the genre constantly. In An Affair Before Christmas, for example, one character is a dying man. I’m pushing toward the edge of the boundary and she’s pulling me back in. One of the ways in which she tries to reign in what I’m doing is by controlling what it looks like on the back. A lot of readers will actually really like what I write. But they may not like it if it’s packaged in a way that frightens them.
My books have what’s called a high barrier to entry, which means the vocabulary is not at a second grade level. So, playing that down, in a sense, is part of the publisher’s game. They’ve discovered that people will jump over that barrier to entry, and love what they’re reading. Within romance, my books are more complicated, difficult, with more characters, so people end up loving them and they end up being very loyal, which is what publishers love. Readers go out in the first week and buy the book. My readers are very loyal, very interactive. The publisher loves devoted fans, and they want to make sure that I don’t frighten off people who might become those fans. So their apparatus is to make it look much more like a conventional romance, which means there’s no question who the boy and girl are, so to speak. They definitely don’t want to say on the back that the subplot involves a man dying.
Q: Did you want that character to make it, or did you want him to die in the book and the publisher pushed for him to pull through?
A: No, Villiers was always going to make it. I like him a lot. There’s a lot of interior patterning in this particular series. Villiers is instrumental in every romance that happens, and he will be the subject of the last book. I’m very fond of him because he’s changing. I mean, you can’t do much in 350 manuscript pages, or 400 even. I can give this intense slice of life, right? The five most important days in a person’s life. And I tend to do that. I think I’m getting a much different view of the unities, in terms of the history of literary criticism. Because what the unities do is force you to focus on that most important time. I don’t stick to the unities, but I see exactly where that drive is coming from.
If I’m working on a six book cycle, with six sets of 400 pages, I can bring a character along, and they can truly change. So in Much to Do About You, for example, Isabelle is quite young and makes a rash marriage. Her husband dies, and she’s horrid for two books, which is exactly what I wanted her to be. I wanted her to be nasty because when we’re grieving, we’re nasty. We’re not nice to the people closest to us. (I mean, some people probably are, but a lot of people I’ve known haven’t been.) Well, I got tons of letters saying, “I hate her. Don’t ever write a book about her. She’s horrible.” Yes, she was horrible. She had to be horrible. People don’t realize how much more fun it is to see someone in a bad place in life and then see them learn and grow and become someone they can admire. Then when she falls in love, it’s really something, whereas if I produce a perfect little plastic heroine who’s nice all the time, where’s the challenge for me? Where’s the challenge for you? There’s nothing there. It’s a nursery rhyme.
Q: I understand you write two books a year … Does each book take six months?
A: It depends on where they are in the series. It takes a long time to write the first book in the series; it takes a very short amount of time to write the fourth one. So what really takes the most time is thinking. That’s just horrible. That takes forever. But you know, I can do that anywhere … I’m on a lot of committees; I think a lot in the middle of committee meetings. And I often wake up in the middle of the night and think through conversations between characters—none of which will ever get on the page. I’ve found that the more time they talk in my head, the faster it goes when I actually write, so I don’t even try to remember those conversations. They talk about stuff like their parents, their background, their children, what they like to wear.
Q: Do you think romances are easier to get published than literary fiction or poetry?
A: No. There are, like, 10,000 members of the Romance Writers of America, and 6% have published books.
Q: That’s a very small percentage.
A: I think it’s probably comparable to MFA programs and the percentage [of graduates] that have published five years out from their MFA. Romance is a little easier maybe because there’s a very strong network of advice. The Romance Writers of America is extremely organized. They will essentially tell you exactly how to get published, do their best to help you. There are lots of conferences. I and other people go and give a workshop and say, “This is what you have to do.”
Q: I’d like to discuss the stigma of romance novels, which I think involves two issues: the division between the high and low culture, as well as the particular stigma associated with this genre. Someone is probably not going to be embarrassed to say she likes detective novels, but I was a little embarrassed when my bag full of romance novels fell out of the overhead compartment on the plane when I was flying here.
A: They’re embarrassing. They stigmatize you in a multitude of different ways, which I think partly has to do with gender. You’re seen as someone who can’t face real life, who’s living in a dream world. So, yes, there is a big divide between high and low culture, but romance is the very bottom of the heap in low culture. And that means that every genre within pop culture looks down on romance. Actually, it’d be much cooler if a lot of pornography had fallen out. Everyone would’ve looked at you and thought, “Wow, she’s got a real edge.” But romance … There’s the sense that women might get erotically excited reading them, and that’s viewed very dubiously by our culture, male and female—whereas, interestingly enough, Playboy is just part of our culture with no particular stigma at all attached to it.
Romance is also viewed as stupid. I can’t tell you how many times people have said to me, “So what’s your formula? Did you find it online?”
Q: People who haven’t read your books, I assume.
A: No, but most people haven’t read romance. Yet, it’s one of the places where we feel free to criticize. Sometimes people have no idea that they’re being rude. For example, I went to dinner with a colleague and her teenage daughter and we were talking about my career as a writer. She turned to her daughter and said, “See, honey, you can write down all of your dirtiest fantasies and make a million dollars.” And she absolutely had no idea that she was being rude to me.
Romance is such a denigrated category that romance writers consciously have to figure out how they’re going to deal with the criticism. Some people are quite abrasive and say I must be laughing all the way to the bank or “I didn’t know you write that kind of book. I don’t read those books.” So you say, “What? No pictures?” You strike right back at their intelligence or you simply retreat to the fact that 50% of all books sold in the U.S. are romances. Among all of those shamed people are a lot of my close friends, and a lot of the women who I would want to know. So then you can sort of say, “Well, to heck with the critics.” But one of the unfortunate things about being a romance writer is that you do constantly have to grapple with it. Whereas, if you are a literary fiction author who writes some really appalling prose perhaps with no grammar and poor punctuation and a deeply abusive attitude towards women, you’re writing literary fiction, a novel, and that is enshrined in our culture as something worthwhile, something honored.
I do think that things are changing, though. For example, Barnes and Noble came to me and asked me to write this “Romantic Reads” column for their review page. They would not have done this five years ago. Romance is being studied much more. One of the things that’s changed is that feminists have really picked up romance. I’ve noticed that within the populations who read it, it works in a deeply feminist manner, strengthening women’s belief in their own right to have a thoughtful, sensual, intelligent long-term relationship. There’s no romance that doesn’t include those ingredients these days. So, Janet Radway, who is one of the very early theorists of romance, has had to revise her initial findings, which she has acknowledged were deeply flawed on a research level. But I think one of the interesting things she said was that romance writing has really been struggled over and changed by the women who write it, so you really don’t find bodice rippers any more.
Those were very racy books; the heroine would often have three or four lovers and forced sexual encounters and enjoy them a lot. You know, the way that sociologists are looking at those books now is very interesting, because it was in the 70s and the 60s when things are really changing within American marriage in terms of women’s independence, and so the books tend to reflect the kind of turmoil that’s going on in society as a whole. Romances tend to be closer to the ground than literary fiction. For example, after Katrina, there was suddenly a burst of paranormal romances in which women could control weather. I thought that was fascinating. Romances respond directly to the kind of current of strong emotion going through our culture.
Q: Do you think Barnes and Noble would have asked you to write this column if you weren’t a Shakespeare scholar?
A: No. They have a mystery writer writing one, too, and he’s also a professor. One of the things that’s changing about romance is that people who are highly educated are writing it. And that doesn’t mean anything at all in terms of the quality of the romance, but it does mean that it’s an easier mouthful for the establishment to accept. As a mouthpiece for romance, nobody can look at my degrees and say “I’m smarter than she is.” A lot of what you do in life is defined by where you get your degrees. And so that makes it easier for people to say, “Well, I must have made a mistake about romance.” I do think it’s fascinating that I went to Harvard, Julie Quinn went to Harvard, Lisa Kleypas went to Wellesley … a lot of the top romance writers right now went to the Ivey Leagues, and that means that although there are absolutely wonderful romance writers like Nora Roberts, who didn’t have a college degree, people of every kind of educational background are now writing romance, and that means that it’s less ghettoized by the establishment.
Q: What would you like to see happen with the genre?
A: I think they should all just be genres. Literary fiction is just a genre. There are some people writing very good literary fiction; there are a lot of people writing bad literary fiction. It’s exactly the same for romance. There’s good romance and there’s bad romance.
Q: As I was thinking about the taboo of reading romance novels, I kept noticing one blurb from USA Today that’s on one of your books and on the website: “Utterly frivolous … this normally down-to-earth reader found herself devouring the book like a dieter with a Hershey bar.”
A: Isn’t that fascinating?
Q: Yes. When I read it, I thought, here’s a critic who’s still setting up the romance as something you shouldn’t have.
A: That was for my first book. USA Today got an English graduate student to review it. She’d never read a romance before, and she instantly compares it to a kind of pedestrian form of chocolate, right? I like Hershey as much as anyone else, but she didn’t say it’s Godiva chocolate; she said it’s Hershey chocolate, i.e. a readily available, in-the-drugstore kind of chocolate. She also describes it in sexual way, like she was ravished by the novel. It’s kind of a feminist shame. There’s a clear sense in that review of “I didn’t want to succumb to this book. I wanted to write a review saying this is crap.” But she didn’t. She succumbed to it like a dieter with a Hershey bar; she succumbed to some sort of forbidden pleasure that would have been better for her if she hadn’t. She would have been better for not having succumbed to the romance. It’s an unfortunate way of describing what happened to her, but on the other hand, I think it’s extremely common.
Q: Is that why the publisher keeps using this quote?
A: They use it, frankly, because it’s major American media.
Q: I felt it goes against what you’re trying to do, which is to say that romance is not a Hershey bar you shouldn’t eat… It’s something better.
A: But it works very well for me because I get to talk to people about it. I was writing a piece for an English paper and I used it there. It’s a feminist issue because it allows people to think about the way in which they talk about romance.
Q: How have your colleagues responded to your revelation?
A: I deliberately concealed it for years until I got tenure. I didn’t want my colleagues to think I was not working hard in my field—and I work very hard in my field. Or that I wasn’t pulling my weight in the department, or that I wouldn’t because I was a prima donna. The other thing I wanted though was to be a New York Times best seller because that carries a weight within the academic world that everyone understands. So that happened and I got tenure, and I brought in a box of books. [My colleagues] started trading them like playing cards based on the covers. There were a few men who declined to take a book, but everyone else very courteously took one. I don’t know how many people read them. The conversation segued instantly to a fight over funding cuts in the composition program. But it was fine. I was the director of graduate studies. I was obviously pulling my own weight. And no one has really bothered with it since.
Q: Is writing romance novels more fun than the academic writing, or do you spend the same energy crafting a romance novel, worrying about finding exactly the right words?
A: No, I don’t have to worry like that. I can write a romance much, much faster. Right now I’m writing an article for a book called City of Vice, which is about London, and I’m writing an article on what happened in St. Paul’s Cathedral about 1606, 1608, and a play that has to do with it, and it’s hard to write. I mean I keep writing the first three paragraphs over and over again. I never do that with a romance. But I think that the two feed each other. Without the scholarship, I wouldn’t be as good a writer because many of my ideas come from the scholarship. [My romances] are historically based novels, so a lot of the ideas will come out of Early Modern plays or out of other scholarship that I’m doing on London. That said, I think scholarship would get boring if you were only doing it.
So I feel I have a perfect balance. I get to write these books that basically do not get criticized. They’re published in hundreds of thousands. I get bad reviews now and then, and a few people may write to me and say, “I hated this book. What happened to you? Blah blah blah.” Whatever. I’ve learned that you can’t please everyone all the time. A good hundred thousand people are gonna like it a lot, and that doesn’t happen with academics, you know? You write an article and hardly anyone reads it, and those that read it are going to write you and say, “It’s all well and good but footnote 16 was blatantly wrong, and you forgot to mention the article that I wrote in 1958 about this very subject!” So, it’s a good balance. An 18-page article can take me months to write, and a 350-page book will also take me months but it’s a different product and it gets a very different response.
Q: Do you think writing the romance novels affects your scholarly writing in a positive way?
A: No, I don’t think so. I already had my voice as a scholar before I started writing [romance].
Q: Your writing is so wonderful, so witty and elegant. I noticed some readers complaining online that you’re too creative for this formulaic genre, that you should break out into something “meatier.” Have you done any other kind of creative writing?
A: No. You know what? My gift is for romance, and I know that certainly makes me strange within my family. My parents never read a romance until I came along and started reading and then writing them. I’ve been asked that a lot. There’s a lot more money, for example, in writing a historical novel, like The Girl With the Pearl Earring. But I find those novels boring. I like doing scholarship. My scholarship is extremely serious and takes me a huge amount of time. And my romance is extremely light and doesn’t take much time and gives me a lot of pleasure. I don’t want to write if I’m not writing for pleasure because I don’t need the money. I’m a tenured professor. We don’t have a lot of wishes. We don’t need this. So I either do it for pleasure or I don’t do it all. People are always asking me, “When are you going to write a real book?” To me these are very real books. I’m happy with them.
Q: Do you ever feel dissatisfied with the requirements or limitations of this genre, or do the rules prove a useful challenge, perhaps the way a poet may find the rules of a sonnet to be a challenge instead of a restriction?
A: It’s exactly the same. If you think about it, my challenge is much bigger than the challenge that’s posed to a literary fiction writer. One of the reasons why I don’t see myself writing literary fiction is because I think it’d be pretty easy; I could be a bad literary fiction writer in about five minutes. There’s no framework against which you have to work. And that’s one thing I’ve learned from years of teaching Shakespeare. Shakespeare wrote within genre. He was not an innovator at all. Marlowe was an innovator. Shakespeare was not. If he’s going to write a history, he writes a history; if he’s going to write a revenge tragedy, he writes one—and most of the time he steals them. He has sources for almost all of his plays. We know, for example, that Hamlet was on the stage in 1599, just a few years before Shakespeare writes Hamlet. We know there was a ghost saying “Revenge, revenge.” We know it’s the story of King Hamlet. But then Shakespeare comes along and within that framework he creates something that’s tremendously surprising. He shocked everyone within the bounds of a deeply understood genre, the revenge tragedy.
I’m not comparing myself to Shakespeare, but I think you would be very stupid not to try to do what the very best person in your genre is trying to do, and Shakespeare, from my point of view, was the very best romance writer. He wrote the best tragedies, the best romances, the best histories. So I try to do that, to surprise within the bounds of a romance. That’s tremendously hard, in part because my publishers put a shellacked form onto the romance that tells everyone exactly what they’re picking up. The publishers like to nail down the back; they want everyone to understand exactly what they’re getting. So within that, it’s up to me to create the moment when the reader says, “This one isn’t going to end right.” Or “I’m not sure who she’s going to be with,” or “How’s this ever going to work out? He’s terrible in bed.” Or he’s an alcoholic, or he gets a migraine every time he makes love. All these various things that go wrong in real life can go wrong in romance, too.
Q: What did you learn from your parents about writing?
A: Oh, pretty much everything. My mom and dad were very focused on teaching us how to write literary fiction. So one of my earliest memories is of my father acting out all the parts of Beowulf for my sister and me at night. Every night we’d lie awake, but we loved it. He could do a terrifying Grendel. My mother read to us from books like Charlotte’s Web. She read Charlotte’s Web four times, and she would cry. We knew exactly what great literature was: it was violent and it was sad. But I started romances way back then. I was writing plays for money, and they were all romances. That was the genre I discovered as a preteen and started reading relentlessly, and my father was kind of horrified and made me read all these classics. I had to trade a certain number of classics for every romance. I read through all of Mark Twain and all of Dickens and all of Austin that way—whatever we had sets of. I would just start at the beginning of a set and go all the way through. What I was working towards was my grandmother’s collection of Barbara Cartland. So that balance in my life between literature that’s called trash and literature that’s called canonical has been there since I was about thirteen. For me that’s a very healthy balance. I enjoy both of them.
For them it was a shock, I have to say. And for my mother it was a hard shock. She actually died still wishing that I would write a “real” book. I think she came to understand more. She did read a couple of them, sort of, but she felt deeply that literature should challenge people in ethical ways. So the kind of ethical challenging I do in books, which is often about, say, a heroine who lies and needs to learn not lie or who’s shallow and needs to learn to be more sympathetic, that wasn’t enough for her. She really liked to talk about things like life and death and war and peace. Tolstoy was her favorite author.
So I learned that if you’re going to be a real writer, you’re going to disappoint people, and those may be the people whom you love most in the world and whom you owe the most to. But at some point you have to accept the kind of talent you have, and that’s the talent I have. And I’m really good at it, and I love doing it, and I’ve kept doing it in the face of my parents’ opposition and in the face of rejection, in the face of publishing problems. So now, in my forties, most of the people I grew up with and most of the people from whom I’ve received the most instruction (i.e. everyone at Oxford, Yale, and Harvard) scorn what I know how to do. I’m going to do it anyway. In some ways I’m more proud of that than if I’d written literary fiction. It’d be so much easier for me.
Q: Your dad was not only a famous poet but a founder of the men’s movement, which was about defining masculinity and affirming male identify. To what extent did those beliefs affect your household? Did you have an increased or different awareness of gender roles growing up?
A: It didn’t come in very much because he didn’t start doing that until after I’d gone to college. When I was growing up, he was running a conference called the Great Mother Naked At Last, which was a feminist-oriented conference. And then when all the men in America became feminists, he swung back the other way. My father’s always on the edge of the curve, the next curve. So he’s left the masculinity thing behind now.
By the time I got to Yale and my PhD, he paid me $200 to read Iron John and take out the things the feminists wouldn’t like. He paid my sister the same amount. And I tried, I really tried. I took out quite a lot he wouldn’t take out. I did my best. I do remember being at Yale during orientation and a faculty member saying “Oh yeah, Bly. I’ll mark that name” and she made a retching noise. I just looked at her.
You can look at my father in a way as having the same kind of career I did. He’s straight literary fiction at the highest echelon, and at the same he’s done these things a lot of people have really looked down on but that he passionately believes in and has enjoyed doing—and made a lot of money doing, which he never did as a poet. He’s very supportive of my romances. My stepmother reads them aloud, taking all the sex parts out. He enjoys them a lot.
Q: I was thinking about the use of pen names … Readers often want to read work autobiographically. We want to find the author in the work. Have you ever felt concerned that readers might be perceiving the sex scenes as your deepest fantasies?
A: I don’t write anything very … exuberant. I mean, in my romances, the man might start out bad but in the end he’s extremely respectful to whoever his partner is. He’s very much in love with her, and he’s usually married to her. It’s a question of equal pleasure. If anyone wants to think that’s my fantasy, they’re more than welcome to, because it’s the reality I’ve adhered to for life. I don’t think a woman should ever accept any kind of unequal relationship in bed. My mother was a deep feminist, and she actually passed on a lot of things I put in these books. She may not have known it, but she did.
So I have no problem with that. One interesting thing is that I ended up a having a motif in my books of people making love outdoors. People have asked me about that, and I have to say no, my husband and I are both nice, solid professors in our forties. We do not make love outdoors! But if you’re writing romance and particularly if you’re writing about very rich people based in the past, sometimes making love outdoors can be a way to push them beyond their comfort zones because they’re no longer the rich person in situ in the rich country house. They’re a person in the outdoors with their clothes off. Everyone feels vulnerable outside with their clothes off. That is something I’ve found very useful, in terms of forcing a couple to reach a different kind of understanding of each other. The vulnerability of possibly being seen, possibly having your clothes eaten by a goat, or possibly falling in the water or having snow fall on you.
Q: Do you think your characters will always be wealthy, or end up wealthy? Is that part of the fantasy?
A: Yes. That’s part of my fantasy. I know there are people who’ve written wonderful romances in which that is not the case. But obviously, every author has to tap in not only to the cues of emotional currents running through American culture but also to her own currents, and I grew up very poor, as the daughter of a poet. So, for me, having enough money is a very, very nice thing, and I don’t think there’s anything romantic about not having enough money. That’s based on a childhood spent exactly like that.
Q: Who’s on your list of favorite authors—high/low distinction aside?
A: William Shakespeare.
Q: What kind of child were you?
Q: What’s your relationship with rejection like?
A: I’ve had a lot of it and it stings but doesn’t kill.
Q: Which of your books did you suffer for the most? How?
A: Kiss Me, Annabel. My plot had to do with the difficulties of a man with true faith marrying a woman who had none. My editor at that point hated it and wanted the last 150 pages completely redone. In my opinion, it wrecked the book.
Q: What was the greatest surprise for you in your most recent writing?
A: It’s always a surprise to remember how much I love writing.
Q: Do you have a writerly habit you’d like to break?