Love's Cold Calculus

Notes on the least reputable and most profitable literary genre in American publishing: the romance novel.

Kathleen Eagle, Sunrise Song (jacket copy)

Kathleen Eagle has 30 romances in print, and wrote her first book, a series romance, in 1984. She was living in North Dakota at the time, had just finished her master's degree, and had a summer off. "I had always loved to write," she says, "and I just started writing a story for fun. At the time I had never read romances. I liked a big book with a lot of history--Uris, Michener, that sort of thing--and I got into romance writing completely by accident. My husband is Indian, from Standing Rock reservation in North and South Dakota, and I was an Air Force brat who had grown up moving around all the time.

"I had come west to teach when I met my husband, and I just thought, 'Okay, here's a story set a hundred years ago where this woman comes to North Dakota and meets this Indian man.' And I created these two characters and I went from there, never intending this story to be a romance. After I finished it I sent off to an agent in New York and was told that it was a romance. The agent encouraged me to write a shorter contemporary book as there was apparently a huge demand for those at the time, so I wrote a rodeo romance, and that was the first book I ever sold."

Eagle, who is also the popular fiction reviewer for the Star Tribune, is a sharp, funny woman who makes no apologies for the books she writes; she displays none of the defensiveness so common in other writers in the genre, and her success has allowed her to push the envelope in her own books. Her stories consistently explore relationships between Indian men and white women, one of the enduringly popular themes in the romance genre. But unlike Janelle Taylor, who is often credited with pioneering the "Savage" sub-genre, Eagle works against the usual stereotypes.

"It's what I know," she says. "It's my romance, and I'm very sensitive to all the stereotypical perceptions, and the ways in which some of those have been abused. It was only really after I started writing that I became aware of the whole 'savage/captive' thing. I remember being in a bookstore with my oldest son. He was probably 10 or 12 years old at the time, and he said, 'Look at all these books with Indian dudes and white women on the covers, and look how many of them have the word savage in the title.' And we started looking, and there were a lot."

Sunrise Song is an odd romance in that much of the action takes place in the Hiawatha Insane Asylum for Indians in Canton, South Dakota, a facility operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs from 1902 until 1934. There, mentally ill (which often meant simply recalcitrant) Native Americans were housed, Americanized, and often sterilized. The book--its narrative strung out over five decades--would seem to signal a first step out of the romance genre, but distinctions don't seem terribly important to Eagle.

"All those distinctions are created by the publishers," she says. "Putting a label on books makes them easier to market. I write the books I want to write, and I'm comfortable with the romance label. I don't mind the constraints, necessarily. You have to work within certain parameters, but that's the challenge with any writing. You know? What's more constrained than a sonnet?"

Eagle also points to the satisfaction of romance's payoff. "I enjoy knowing what I'm ultimately working toward," she says. "It still has to end with the hero and the heroine getting together. You're going to get some kind of positive resolution. That's always the number-one complaint you hear about literary fiction or the movies: You don't get that payoff, there's an unsatisfactory ending. Nothing really happens."

In May of this year Eagle will take the biggest and perhaps scariest step for a romance writer when her next book, The Night Remembers, will be issued in hardcover by Avon.

"The romance novelist has an implicit contract with the reader who buys her book to portray life exactly as it is not."

--Susan Elizabeth Phillips

The Midwest Fiction Writers are back at the Creekside Community Center, celebrating member Tami Hoag's remarkable achievement of having placed her third book in 10 months on The New York Times list. "Chick filler in a Stephen King sandwich," Hoag says, alluding to the fact that at the moment King is hogging up the list with six titles.

"I saw Tami at Target right between Danielle Steel and Kathleen Woodiwiss on the top shelf," someone says.

"I saw Tami at the Total Mart," someone else says. "When your books are in the gas station you know you've really made it."

Hoag announces that the mini series of her book Night Sins is going into production. "The more I work with these people in L.A.," she says, "the more I realize that they're just completely nuts. Also, I learned a lesson. Don't wish for Sandra Bullock when you're likely to get Valerie Bertinelli. I got Valerie Bertinelli."

There is cake to celebrate Hoag's achievement, and a photo circulates of Eagle with Kareem Abdul Jabbar at the annual American Booksellers' Association convention. In the midst of all the celebrating, one woman mentions that her manuscript has just been rejected for the fifty-seventh time.

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