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Awww romance! People like reading about adoration almost as much as they like feeling it. It’s literature’s great everlasting theme.
Award-winning romance writer and Lambda Literary Foundation board member Sue Greer, aka KG MacGregor, was kind enough to share her thoughts with the Lambda Literary Review about the popularity of romance writing–specifically in regards to lesbian genre fiction.
A former market research consultant, Sue A. Greer received her doctorate in journalism & mass communication from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Under the pseudonym KG MacGregor, she has written over eleven romance titles. Her sixth novel, Out of Love, won the 2007 Lambda Literary Award for Women’s Romance. In addition, she has won five Golden Crown Awards for her work.
Her last novel, Rhapsody, was published in June by Bella Books.
You are on the board of the Lambda Literary Foundation—how does your writing influence the work you do with the board?
I feel deeply connected to the lesbian genre fiction community, so in my work as a board member, I’m always asking myself how the Foundation’s programs and policies will impact those writers and readers, and how we can draw them into the larger community of LGBT literature in a way that will elevate and magnify what all of us do. If my own self-interest weren’t enough, I also feel the specter of Katherine Forrest hanging over me because she’s the one who brought me to the board at the end of her term. She was—and still is—a fabulous champion of our stories, and I feel honored to carry the mantle.
Does your work with Lambda ever influence your writing?
It doesn’t make me aspire to tell certain types of stories or to emulate those writers we hold in high regard, but I have to admit the platform brings with it a certain pressure to excel. Not that I don’t already hold myself to a high standard, but I can’t help but feel my books reflect on all the communities of which I’m a part—Lambda, Bella Books, and lesbian genre fiction in general.
You have a background in writing market research. Does one type of writing ever inform the other?
Before I wrote market research reports, I wrote academic papers, and the difference between those two styles is vast. Scholarly work requires you to explicate every detail on the page, while market research seeks to streamline that “data dump” into only what a busy executive is willing to digest. Fiction writing has no such rules or limitations, so every author will develop his or her own style. In my work, I’m usually in the “less is better” camp, particularly when it comes to scene setting and background. While that’s more reminiscent of a streamlined report, it doesn’t mean all that data is missing. Much of it resides in my head, particularly the visual elements of the story; but I’ve learned those pieces are also in the heads of readers who have constructed their own periphery from the outline I’ve provided. Many of them see familiar faces and settings that evoke the mood I’m trying to strike. The trick in writing is getting just enough of it on the page to tell my story without disrupting what the reader wants to see.
I imagine writing about love when you are not feeling very much affection for the world—or anyone else for that matter—can sometimes be difficult. How do you nurture yourself as writer?
Luckily, I don’t have to feel romance for the whole world. I wrote a blog recently about how the lesbian community nurtures all of us with feelings of love and family. The impetus for that was a reader known to many of us who was horribly injured in an automobile accident that claimed the life of her partner. Our community pulled together to raise an extraordinary amount of money so she could live independently among her network of lesbian friends instead of returning to her family’s home in another state. I think we all related to the fear of losing the support networks we’ve cultivated in absence of feeling fully embraced by our families, coworkers, churches and communities. I believe it’s these acts of kindness and generosity that sustain all of us in those moments when we feel beaten down.
Have you grown as a writer since your first novel?
Indeed, I’ve grown circumspect, frustrated, confident, weary, etc., and that was just after the first one. I look at every book as an exercise in elasticity—I can either stretch, or relax in a familiar shape and each has its own rewards. When I established myself as romance writer, I accepted the boundaries of the genre, i.e., two characters will overcome conflicts to be together, and their story will end on a happy or hopeful note. What I can’t accept is that it has to be utterly predictable. My challenge with each story is therefore to deliver a credible surprise, but to do so while keeping my covenant with the romance reader. As a result, I think my growth as a writer has been from merely emulating other books, to trying each time to write something new.
Do you have a particular audience in mind as you write? If so, does that influence your subject matter?
I mentioned earlier that I feel deeply connected to the lesbian fiction community. Email, blogs, and especially social media have enabled all of us to network in ways that mean we don’t have to guess about who our audience is. I know their names, see them at book events and interact with them every day on a stage that virtually anyone can see. There’s no question that it makes me more conscious of my audience. As to whether or not it influences my subject matter…yes, but probably not in the way one might think. I gave the keynote speech last year at the Golden Crown Literary Society convention, and asked readers to follow me even when I led them out of their comfort zone. Just for cover, I asked the other writers in the room to lead them there too, because it’s risky going there alone. Rachel Spangler curses me for that because she’s been brave enough to try it. The goal is to take the reader on a difficult and uncertain journey, but make that reading experience worthwhile.
What role do you feel the romance genre serves in readers’ lives? Is it escapism? Valid explorations of love? I want to get your ideas on the role romantic fictions play in readers’ imaginary and intellectual lives.
From my own experience many years ago, I can tell you I was starved for lesbian love stories that affirmed my life; and I didn’t even realize I had this need until I read my first one. Now that I have the benefit of an academic background in media uses and gratifications theory, I recognize that as the “identity” function, and I believe it’s a stronger motivation among LGBT readers than any of the traditional escape or socialization needs. We want to see our lives reflected back at us in ways that make us feel validated, proud and hopeful—because we don’t always get that from other media, and many of us don’t get it from our families and communities. Without question, there are those who live vicariously through our romance stories. They fall in love with our lead characters, and long to live in their world and have them as friends. They also learn about things and find themselves inspired to share the adventures our characters have. At least a dozen readers wrote to me about their personal quest to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa after reading my romance novel, Worth Every Step. Another dozen thanked me for writing about it so they could share in the adventure without leaving their chair.
A lot of romance writers feel that the genre is treated like the “red-headed stepchild” in the literary community. Can you tell me your thoughts on the romance genre’s “place” within the literary community?
Yes, I agree the romance genre is often disparaged, not only within LGBT literature, but in all writing communities. I firmly believe some of that attitude is rooted in the identification of romance as women’s fiction, where even the most thoughtful and innovative books in the genre are dismissed as fluff. I don’t know how else to explain it, since other genre works (e.g., mystery, speculative, even erotica) don’t generally suffer the same degree of derision as romance. No doubt it’s also rooted in elitism, which I don’t say pejoratively. In the strictest sense of the word, elite literature is a genre as well. There’s nothing wrong with preferring provocative, poetic prose and stories that burn us with sorrow, triumph and grit. But it isn’t wrong either to want relatable characters with the sort of turn-the-page drama, comedy and action that writers like Karin Kallmaker, Radclyffe and Georgia Beers deliver on a regular basis. The best books, I think, are those that endure, irrespective of the genre.
Do you have ideas on what a makes a good romance novel work?
I think the best romances strike the balance between fantasy and realism in such a way that readers can see themselves or their friends in the story. They want to watch the romance unfold in a credible and emotional way. Instant attraction they understand; instant love, not so much.
A good romance need not be simple and straightforward. I usually have a theme in mind as I tell a story, and it’s been fascinating to realize from feedback and reviews that my themes aren’t always the one the readers carry away. On the one hand, I could fault my lack of clarity, but the truth is that once a book leaves my desk, it belongs to the reader. It doesn’t matter much what I meant if it’s not what they perceived. On the other hand, the real audience for a book—the one I intended to reach with my message—might only be a sliver of those who read it. For them, that subtle or hidden meaning leapt off the page. When that happens, I know my novel works.
How do you balance following the tropes that are often expected—sometimes demanded—from readers while still providing the readers with something new? It seems like it can be a tricky slope. Are there ways you would like to see the genre grow both stylistically and in terms of narrative?
There are lots of ways to mix up a story without breaking the covenant with the romance reader, but writers know they’re taking a chance when they do something far out of the ordinary. I don’t believe most readers mind the occasional departure from the feel-good formula, but a shift in narrative that spans two or three of an author’s books will leave readers guessing whether or not their romance expectations will be met in future books. Stylistically, there are a number of lesbian fiction authors—people like D. Jordan Redhawk, Gerri Hill and the team of Kim Baldwin and Xenia Alexiou—who have done a magnificent job of melding the romance with the supernatural, the adventure and the heart-pounding thriller.
I know you are a Xena: Warrior Princess fan (full disclosure: I am an avid Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan). Anything currently on TV that has captured your fascination—particularly with strong female characters?
The Xena years were like lightning in a bottle. The show itself was an inspiration for ideas, but fan fiction writers like Missy Good, Linda Crist and Susan Meagher showed us how to turn those ideas into the written word. That’s how I started writing, so I can tell you emphatically that it changed my life, and I’ll always feel a part of the Xenaverse. I don’t think that sort of fascination will ever be replicated for me, but I’ve seen in other fandoms how the experience catches people at different places in their lives and fills them with the same kind of excitement I found in the Xena community.
Now for a philosophical question: I love the idea of true love—but the cynic in me sometimes dismisses the idea. So I’ve always wanted to ask a master of the romance genre, do you think true love really exists? And if so, what is the best way to achieve/find it?
What, you think I’m going to commit heresy (not to mention career suicide) right here in the Lambda Literary Review? Of course true love exists. As a romance writer, however, I have to admit I haven’t gone deep into stories of what I imagine as true love, except in the four-book Shaken Series. By definition, the romantic arc that defines the genre pretty much ends when the path to true love becomes clear, i.e., when the characters overcome the obstacles that threaten them or keep them apart. As anyone who’s been in a long-term relationship knows, the real proof of true love usually comes in far less romantic moments long after the endorphin rush subsides. Some readers crave that, and they tend to like romantic series built around the challenges couples face once they’ve made a commitment. For the pure romance reader, however, the “fix” is the romantic arc, not what happens next.
The best way to find or achieve true love reminds me of the advice on how to live to be 100: Live to be 99, and be very, very careful. True love has to have the magic ingredient of two people who fit together, and whose sense of commitment means a willingness to work toward preserving their love above everything else.