Two Hats are Better Than One

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weeeloisa.JPGTrash.  Hackery.  Beach reads.  Genre fiction gets a lot of derisive description in the public eye.  Mysteries are ‘formulaic’. Fantasy is for the credulous.  Science Fiction is all lasers and improbable rocketships.   (I run a science fiction and fantasy bookstore, and once had a patron tell me condescendingly that she only read ‘real’ books*).  But nothing and no one comes in for the kind of scorn reserved for Romance and its readers.

Romance’s popularity is what makes it a target, of course:  why take aim at something that might be hard to hit?  There’s a deeper and uglier layer to the mockery, as well:  its a genre largely written and read by women, and thus automatically considered of little worth, usually by people who don’t read it. The end result is that millions of Romance readers have a lingering sense of embarrassment about what they read.  They hide the covers, use the phrase ‘guilty pleasure’, and generally try to evade an inculcated sense of shame.

Enter Mary Bly.

Mary Bly is a Shakespearean scholar.  Hers is an academic and pedigreed background.  Her father is National Book Award-winning poet Robert Bly; her mother, Carol Bly, is the author of literary short fiction.  Mary herself has an undergraduate degree from Harvard, a Masters from Oxford, and a PhD. from Yale.  She’s a tenured university professor, with all the teaching, research and study that entails.

She is also Eloisa James, New York Times bestselling author of sumptuous historical romances.

Eloisa James was born under somewhat mercenary circumstances.  Bly’s husband thought that having a much-desired second child would be extremely difficult, given the amount of debt those years of post-graduate study had engendered.  So, like many other women before her, Bly decided to get a second job.  Only the job she chose was Romance novelist.  In short, she started writing for the money.  The original plan was to pay off the student loans, then stop. But while writing her first novels, Bly discovered that she loved the work.  So even after her debts were paid off, she kept writing.  Which is great news for readers.

For many years, she kept her two identities quite separate.  Few outside her immediateeloisa james.jpg family knew of her second career.  Definitely no one in the academic world:  Bly was repeatedly warned not to let the news of her writing slip, lest the knowledge damage her academic  aspirations.  And during those years, Bly rather enjoyed the subterfuge.  It was like being a superhero, and having a secret identity.  She even costumed the two roles separately for public appearances.  James’ style is looser and more relaxed;  Bly wears glasses, James, contacts.

But as time went on, Bly began to wonder if she was, in fact, doing the right thing.  As much as Mary enjoyed the play-acting, she began to feel that by keeping her (increasingly wildly successful) secret, she was contributing to the sense of shame her readers were subject to.  So In 2005, she decided to come out, so to speak.

She did so in spectacular fashion, with articles in New York Times.  Oooh, shock! Drama! There were interviews in print and online, there was buzz all over the publishing world.  And then, of course, things went back to normal.  Because the idea that people can like, and read (and write) more that one thing isn’t exactly a big deal.  Though Bly still writes as James — a successful pseudonym is nothing to abandon — she lives both of her lives openly, and with pride.  Today she is the author of more than twenty novels, has contributed to anthologies, and even worked on group novel. She also write a column for Barnes and Noble, and has penned non-fiction articles for several magazines.  Oh, and of course, she’s a tenured university professor, a wife, and the mother of two children.

I came late to reading Eloisa James;  I’m not sure why.  I tried one of her early books, found it pleasant but forgettable.  But her series about the Essex women — four Scottish sisters who come to England when orphaned — made me a serious fan.  James’ follow-up, ‘Desperate Duchesses’, a six-book series set in the Georgian period, cemeted my admiration. James’ background in historical research adds realism:  her love
stories, however exquisite, are grounded in a day to day experience that
is more difficult, and in some ways far more dirty, than our own.
 
James’ most recent novel is When Beauty Tames the Beast, a wonderful blending of elements from fairy-tales and the television show House.  Set in a Regency-esque England, and playing out against the beginnings of modern medicine, it follows Linnet and Piers, two guarded individuals who learn to open up enough to let someone else in.  I loved it so much that it made me reread and re-evaluate A Kiss at Midnight, the first novel in this set of fairy-tale retellings.  It’s great when that happens, kind of like getting two books for the price of one.

Or even, hey! two writers.

*Another told me he was too intelligent for mere books.  Retail.  Good times.

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Chris Szego is very, very glad she lives in a present that includes indoor plumbing.


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