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Love Lit?

Anne Stuart is Vermont's goddess of bodice-rippers


Published February 7, 2001 at 9:13 p.m.

Photo: Anne Galloway
  • Photo: Anne Galloway

Jilly comes to the office to confront her father. Instead she encounters his new partner, Coltrane — a tall, dark, handsome man who is determined to undermine her father’s real-estate empire. Jilly lobs insults at him in self-defense. Coltrane shamelessly manipulates her fear.

Coltrane is a man who’s used to getting what he wants. And he wants Jilly. Somehow, she has to resist his charm and keep him from destroying everything she loves. To do that she throws caution — and her underwear — to the wind, uncovers what Coltrane is really up to and discovers the explosive secrets of his past.

This plot unfolds around a Hollywood mansion Jilly is attempting to restore that is occupied by the ghosts of two lovers. Add to this an intricate family drama rife with jealousy, drugs and sibling strife, and there are enough subplots in this romance to spin off several other novels.

But even with these distractions, by page 40 it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the two sparring, star-crossed lovers will bed long before the last chapter of Anne Stuart’s latest novel, Shadows at Sunset.

As you might have guessed, this book is a full-bodied romance with characters who revel in becoming partially clothed. In due time, the heroine and the villain experience, if not the transforming properties of true love, something nearly as cathartic.

For Vermont author Anne Stuart, also known as Kris Ohlrogge — or as Sister Krissie the Impeccably Demure to her fans — this is the latest in a steady stream of romance novels. Shadows at Sunset was published by Doubleday, but over the course of her 26-year career, Stuart has also been published by Ballantine, Dell, Penguin, Avon and, of course, Harlequin.

From her home in Greensboro, Ohlrogge churns out an average of three books a year. Since 1972, she’s written more than 60 novels. And thanks to her faithful following, they sell. Her last book, Lady Fortune, sold over 100,000 copies, and some of her Harlequin novels have sold up to 200,000 copies.

As Ohlrogge has become a mainstay in the industry, she’s been able to court several publishers at a time, sweetening the deals as she goes.

“I’ve written for almost every publishing house there is,” she says. “It’s nice, you can play them off each other. Then they treat you better and give you more money.”

In spite of her success, it’s hard to imagine a more unlikely romantic heroine than Ohlrogge. She is nervy, unpretentious and — despite her steamy heroines — remarkably unsensual. She doesn’t seem to care much about her personal appearance: She wears Coke-bottle-lens glasses and no makeup, and doesn’t fuss with her wispy blonde hair. Ohlrogge makes no attempt to hide who she is — a happily married, 52-year-old mother of two teenagers.

But to read her books, you’d think she’d worked or traveled in the grittiest corners of the world, vicariously collecting characters along the way: predatory bosses, IRA assassins, murderers, embezzlers and cult leaders.

Conversely, Ohlrogge leads a sheltered life. She lives in a recently built, spacious, if nondescript, two-story house not far from her grandparents’ camp, where she holed up to write her first romance novel almost 30 years ago.

When she isn’t writing, Ohlrogge hangs out with her children, or pursues some productive hobby, like sewing. Except for brief stints at the Rockefeller Foundation in New York City, and at the Vermont State Library, Ohlrogge has worked out of her home for most of her adult life. Her characters, plots, trysts and settings all exist in her imagination. She claims not to do much background work, relying instead on her “memory bank.” She has a way of recalling obscure details, and what she doesn’t know, she imagines.

“I’m a very fast typist, a very fast thinker, and I usually don’t have to do a whole lot of research, because I know all sorts of things,” Ohlrogge asserts. These “things” come from books and magazine articles, which she devours continuously.

“Books start from all different places,” Ohlrogge says. “I had a book that started from a news article in Time magazine about all these old grandmothers found dead in Paris. I wrote a whole book based on that — I just sort of went with the idea.”

Writing seems to be in Ohlrogge’s blood; it was the only thing she ever wanted to do. The daughter of two editors, she sold an article at age 7 to Jack and Jill magazine. In the fifth grade, she wrote her first novel. As her father descended into alcoholism, and untimely death, she retreated further into the world of books.

“I’d go to bed telling myself stories as a way to escape from the stresses of my childhood,” Ohlrogge recalls. “I had a shrink once who said how great it was that I’d been able to take my coping mechanism from childhood and make a living out of it.”

Ohlrogge skipped college, partly as an act of rebellion — her grandfather was the chair of the classics department at Princeton University — and partly to indulge her passion for romantic suspense novels.

She read everything in the genre, went to a lot of rock concerts, and then decided to write her own romances. She moved to her grandparents’ summer camp and cranked out her first novel on a manual typewriter. She was 23.

It took Ohlrogge a year to sell Barret’s Hill, and another year to see it through to publication. She made $2500. But in 1972, she notes, “that carried me through most of a year.”

After that, Ohlrogge wrote a book a year until she bought a computer in the early ’80s, then she doubled her output. But the most revolutionary change had more to do with social mores than technology. For years she kept her romance plots alive with mystery-laden elements, the occasional dead body or bop on the head. It wasn’t until her 12th novel that Ohlrogge’s editors allowed her to do more than pussyfoot around her characters’ pent-up lust. Finally, she could cut to the chase and happily indulge in less-censored sex scenes.

“I thought straight romances were sort of boring, but when they had mystery or sex that made them more interesting,” Ohlrogge says. “Two people falling in love is pretty tedious. Conflict is a major issue. It’s good to have internal as well as external conflict. The external would be the mystery and the internal would be whatever is keeping the two lovers apart.”

These conflicts include painfully close-to-home topics, such as alcoholism. Ohlrogge feels obligated to “put herself on the line,” and to emotionally challenge her readers. “I tend to go toward darkness,” she says, noting both her father and brother died as a result of drinking. “I think it’s stuff I’m working out. I have a very happy life. I have a wonderful husband, wonderful kids, I make a comfortable amount of money, I get to write for a living. I mean, it doesn’t get much better than that, and yet there’s a lot of darkness around my childhood from losing my brother and my father, and my nephew died young. So I sort of work out issues in my books, and it gives me balance.”

Ohlrogge’s rationale is that having a fulfilled “real” life grounds her so that she is free to lead her characters into chaos. Still, she can’t stand to let pieces of plot lay in disarray. She picks them up, dusts them off and puts them back together again — even if it involves conventions that are anathema to many writers. Happy endings, for example.

But Ohlrogge doesn’t let her characters, like Jilly and Coltrane, off too easily. Or get off too easily. “They have to go through all this shit and then survive,” she explains, “because that’s what life is like.”

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