"Men who kill and women who love them." That's how Anne Stuart's friends describe her popular romance novels. On a recent weekday, the 58-year-old Vermont novelist has gathered with four not-yet-published writers for an early lunch at the Asian Bistro in Williston. They discuss shopping for Christmas gear, grown kids, TV shows and Stuart's recent triumph: She just hit the New York Times best-seller list for the first time in her 32-year career as a romance novelist.
When Stuart got the news that her November release Cold As Ice was No. 33 on the prestigious list, "I cried for half an hour," she says. "It's been so long." Now she wonders if she can make her next book measure up. Her friend Sally Floody of Greensboro, also at the lunch, suggests that Stuart give herself a "concrete goal," such as using the royalties from her next best-seller to build a sewing room in her house.
Stuart loves to quilt, but that's about as far as she goes in living up to popular stereotypes of the romance novelist. Cold As Ice is sure to surprise anyone who associates romances with Fabio, frills and furbelows, and love scenes featuring discreetly heaving bosoms. The publisher, Harlequin imprint Mira Books, classifies it as "romantic suspense": Guns are fired, people die, and the heroine, a plucky lawyer, is threatened with torture and death on a regular basis. The F-bomb is dropped casually, and the sex scenes are hot and heavy, with no euphemisms like "manhood" or "member."
Most controversially, the hero embodies the novel's title. An agent for a shadowy international antiterrorist organization, he'll do most anything for the cause, including seducing both men and women. "I'm an expert in all kinds of weapons, including sex," he tells the heroine. "I have no emotions - I can fuck as efficiently as I can kill, and neither mean a thing to me." When the lawyer calls him a "sick bastard," he concedes, "I can be . . . Why don't you try to find my weak points?"
Because Cold As Ice is at heart a romance, the hero's ice eventually melts. It has its conventionally swoony passages. (The hero and villain, who both desire the heroine, repeatedly ogle her "luscious" attributes.) Still, this isn't your grandma's Harlequin.
Stuart doesn't keep a count of her books, because "people tend to sneer at being prolific," she says; she thinks she's written about 60. Born into an academic family in Princeton, New Jersey - her grandfather chaired the university's classics department - she fled to New York at 20 "to go to rock 'n' roll concerts." In 1971, she moved to the family summer place in Greensboro: "I didn't know how to drive and didn't know anybody. I lived alone," she says. The solitude was conducive to writing, and Stuart's first gothic romance was published in 1974. Today she's still in Greensboro with her husband of 31 years.
Romances may be known for sticking to a formula, but Stuart says that's been less true in recent years, as boundaries have been pushed and subgenres have multiplied. She herself has written in many of those subgenres - suspense, gothic, historical, contemporary, adventure, comedy. Today's romance readers "don't want the limits," Stuart observes. "They tend to want certain things out of a romance. A happy ending, a strong love story. But you can have bisexual supporting characters and bittersweet endings. There are fundamentalist Christian love stories and vampire love stories at the opposite extreme."
After nearly three decades of supporting herself with her writing, Stuart is in a good position to introduce edgy elements into her fiction. In addition to, for example, a hero who sleeps with men, she's created a billionaire villain who, it's mentioned in passing, is an "old Texas buddy" of the president - "I'm so liberal I'm practically an anarchist," the author says.
"I'm fortunately at a point where I have a reasonable amount of power," Stuart explains. "If it comes to an argument, and it's something I really believe in, I'll pull the book rather than let somebody do something I feel is really wrong for it."
In the romance world Stuart is known for her outspokenness, which got her in some hot water this fall. In an interview with the popular website All About Romance, she aired concerns about a "lack of support" from her publisher, suggesting that the company was overly focused on "slots and numbers" - "It seems to me that they look at my books like boxes of cereal on a shelf, and they're in the business of selling cereal, not loving it," she wrote.
The comments were picked up and spread around the blogo- sphere by a literary agent who runs a popular blog under the pseudonym "Miss Snark." Since Stuart has a contract with Mira, some commentators characterized her remarks as a betrayal, or at least a bad career move. Others applauded her for daring to say what many writers feel. On the publisher's side, blogging Harlequin editor Isabel Swift responded with a glowing plug for Stuart's new novel that pointedly didn't mention the controversial interview: "We just adore Anne Stuart," she insisted.
"It's distressing," Stuart says now, "because I wasn't meaning to be unkind to my publishers. But I tend to be honest. What's really distressed me is the hostility that's come back at me from strangers. One doesn't want strangers saying mean things about you. I never did learn tact, even as a child. I try not to say hurtful things, but I try to be honest when asked. I would probably do the same thing over again. If someone asks a question, I'll tell them the answer."
Stuart has her own blog, where she communicates with fans and shares her love of Japanese rock and a photo of herself in a nun's habit as "Sister Krissie the Impeccably Demure." (Krissie is the name she goes by in daily life; the rest is a gag: "Those who know me know just how demure I am," she writes.) "I love the Internet. I love technology," Stuart says. "Even though I started out writing on a manual typewriter, God help me."
Another topic on which Stuart doesn't mince words is the common prejudice against romance. "The fact of the matter is, romance is written by and for women, and it's belittled the way no other genre is," she says. "They're considered silly little books, and people are ashamed to be caught reading them the way they aren't with other genres. Writing about death - which I also do - is for some reason more acceptable than writing about love."
Stuart suggests that romance has already "hit the mainstream, but people like to call it different things when it gets there." Jane Austen, for instance, "is most definitely a romance writer," she says. "One of the wealthiest people in entertainment is Nora Roberts, who is and always has been a romance writer." If writers from other genres look down their noses at her, Stuart suggests, it may be because "romance writers simply make more money."
That's no idle claim. A study commissioned by the Romance Writers of America indicates that in 2004 romances accounted for 55 percent of sales of paperback fiction in the U.S. - 39 percent of all fiction sales.
And romance writers crop up in unexpected places - including the Ivory Tower. One topic of conversation at the Asian Bistro luncheon is Eloisa James, a best-selling author of saucy Regency romances who recently revealed that she is actually Mary Bly, a Fordham University English professor and poet Robert Bly's daughter. The women muse on the ironic juxtaposition of Bly's chest-beating best-seller Iron John with his daughter's more feminine concoctions.
All five women at the table are avid romance readers and writers, though only Stuart has made it her career. (Carla Neggers, a Quechee writer with more than 50 romance novels and 10 best-sellers under her belt, sometimes joins the group but couldn't make it today.)
Another topic of conversation is Stuart's upcoming releases. Cold As Ice is actually part of what she calls a "quintology" of linked books with different protagonists, each featuring members of a mysterious do-gooder organization called the Commit- tee. Preceded by Black Ice, it will be followed by Ice Blue next April, Ice Storm later that year, and a fifth novel, which is still untitled.
Stuart has also been collaborating with two other popular romancers, Jennifer Crusie and Eileen Dreyer, on a novel called The Unfortunate Miss Fortunes. As the three writers strive to reconcile their different styles in this tale of three sparring sisters, "We've become our characters," Stuart says with a chuckle.
Conversation turns to the value of romances - who reads them, and what they get from it. Stuart says many of her fellow writers get "jail letters" from male readers in prison who claim the novels helped them become more sensitive. Floody, a psychotherapist, points out that "soft erotica" such as romance novels is sometimes used as a form of therapy for women who have been physically abused: Romance gives them a "framework for understanding loving sex," she says.
Therapeutic or not, romance lets readers escape into a world where everything is more intense, and even the coldest men care passionately underneath. Stuart's novels tend to mine dark veins of human experience. But they also leave readers happy. "I had a [writer] friend who said her goal was not to change someone's life," she says. "Just to change their afternoon."