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Eloisa James on Her Favourite Romance Novels

Born to be Wilde by Eloisa James

Born to be Wilde
by Eloisa James


Bestselling romantic novelist Eloisa James says romance novels are all pretty feminist: even historical heroines (who couldn’t hold a job) are forthright, strong women

Interview by Emma Mustich

Born to be Wilde by Eloisa James

Born to be Wilde
by Eloisa James

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The first book you list is It Had to Be You by Susan Elizabeth Phillips. What is it about this book that makes you like it so much?

With any favourite book, part of one’s love for it has to do with the memory of first reading it. Years ago I found this novel in Florence, Italy, of all places. It was a very very hot afternoon, and my husband and I were reading and drinking gin-and-tonics. I started laughing aloud, and finally I laughed so hard that I actually fell off the couch. My husband raised his head, narrowed his eyes, and said: ‘Did you have another gin-and-tonic?’ I hadn’t. I was giddily drunk on Phillips’s brilliant, utterly witty dialogue.

This book takes place in the modern day, whereas your own books take place in the past. It also takes place in the world of sports, something you haven’t written about. Is it partly on account of these differences from your own work that the book is so appealing to you?

Not particularly. I’ve never gone to a professional football game, and I don’t see myself going to one in the near future. But I will follow a great writer anywhere – into sports, outer space, even the Bronx.

Have you ever been tempted to write a romance set in the present day?

I tried it once and I couldn’t do it. I teach Shakespeare all day, and those are the voices that echo through my head. My supposedly modern guys all sound like Shakespeare actors.

Your second book, Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase, takes place in the past – just after the Regency period. Why do you think historical romance is such a popular and successful genre? Does it perhaps have something to do with the old European structures of authority, or even the different sorts of clothing men and women used to wear – or is it something else entirely?

The past is the ultimate escape: we dream ourselves backward, into a time when women wore fabulously interesting and sensual clothing and, perhaps more importantly, to a time when relationships between men and women were highly structured. Hooking up is a far more confusing process than going to a debutante ball.

This book, like many of your own, takes place in England and Europe. Why do you think that writers and readers – particularly in America, it seems – are attracted to romance novels that take place in those countries?

I’m not sure, actually… But I will say this. This book is probably the most intelligently written historical novel I’ve ever read. This is a book that’s as much about marriage as it is about love.

“This book is probably the most intelligently written historical novel I’ve ever read”

The hero and heroine fall in love during a fractious marriage that changes both of them for the better: this book is the best evidence I can offer for the fact that a man and woman can live an intelligent, sensual, thoughtful and kind life together – even when the partners themselves could never be described as thoughtful or kind. Marriage is a tremendously interesting state, and this novel looks squarely at its best and worst qualities.

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The next book you’ve listed is Flowers from the Storm. Why did you choose this one?

As a romance writer, I hugely admire those authors who take on a serious challenge. It’s not particularly difficult to match two smart, funny people, especially if they have a modicum of good looks and at least one paycheck between the two of them. It is far more difficult to create a novel that circles around a relationship that seems impossible. Because we write in a genre (romance), I think it is particularly important that the reader experience some uncertainty – a nervous sense that this time the promise of the genre might not come true (a parallel would be the mystery that is utterly unsolvable halfway through).

“It is far more difficult to create a novel that circles around a relationship that seems impossible”

In Flowers from the Storm, Kinsale’s hero is a brilliant and dashing nobleman – who’s had a stroke. He can’t speak properly; he can’t make himself understood; he’s been shut away in a morbid mental asylum. Her heroine is someone from an entirely different class, a Quaker who volunteers to help in the asylum. Pairing the two of them – getting past the obstacles of health, class and general moral understanding – was a tremendous challenge, and Kinsale succeeded brilliantly.

Do you think it would be fair to say that successful romance novels often have an element of the unrealistic? For instance, in some stories (like this one) there might be a serious obstacle to a relationship that’s meant to be; or, in other cases, a relationship might blossom much more quickly and easily than it could in real life?

Romance is like literary fiction or any other genre: some of it is written brilliantly, and a great deal of it isn’t. I don’t think it’s accurate to characterise the genre as a whole. Kinsale’s book offers a thoroughly researched look at treatments for dementia in the period, an accurate description of stroke recovery, and a long story about how a Quaker and an English nobleman could overcome the many difficulties that stand in the way of a match like theirs.

Your fourth book, Welcome to Temptation, is like It Had to be You in that it takes place in modern-day America.

This book offers a brilliant mix of funny dialogue and a hysterical plot. A wedding photographer is pushed into shooting a porn movie set in a little town called Temptation. The hero is the town sheriff. The plot plays perfectly to Crusie’s talent for creating witty, frantic heroines.

Publishers Weekly calls this ‘a saucy feminist romp’. What exactly does ‘feminist’ mean in the context of romance novels? What makes a female romance hero, or her story, ‘feminist’?

I actually think there are very few non-feminist romances, pace Publishers Weekly. Current academic scholarship credits romance for its focus on what a woman wants and deserves in life. They’re all pretty feminist – even historical heroines (who couldn’t hold a job) are forthright, strong women. Susan Elizabeth Phillips’s heroine owns a football team and the hero manages it: ie, she’s in charge of his paycheck.

Finally, you’ve named J R Ward’s Dark Lover – a vampire book written in 2005, before the Twilight craze dawned. What draws you to this book?

I think Ward did a fantastic job of capturing the complicated zeitgeist in America, post-9/11. This is a vampire book that plays directly into the sort of fears raised by the terrorist attack: the ‘good’ vampires fight ‘bad’ vampires, who merge into the general population and can’t be detected (except by the smell of baby powder, hardly an infallible attribute).

What do you think it is about vampires, and other paranormals, that links them so often in literature to sex and romance? Aren’t these creatures that some people might reasonably find repulsive, rather than seductive?

My sense is that vampires are waning as a sub-set of romance. That said, I think the vampire, in movies or novels, appeals because he is presented as primitive and aggressive, in a way that would get a man labelled a jerk in real life. In romance, he is often described as unable to exist without the heroine. Christine Feehan’s vampires, for example, see only in black and white until they encounter their ‘mate’.

Assuming you think it’s better than Twilight – why do you think so?

I couldn’t read more than a few chapters of Twilight.

You’ve written that you first started reading romance novels when you were in fifth grade. Would you feel comfortable with your own children reading all of these books?

My daughter is in 5th grade, as it happens, but she is much younger than I was at that age. She’s rereading the Harry Potter series at the moment, which is just where she should be.

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Finally, of all these five books, which would you most recommend to someone who has never read a romance novel before?

Susan Elizabeth Phillips’s It Had to Be You. Here’s the opening sentence: ‘Phoebe Somerville outraged everyone by bringing a French poodle and a Hungarian lover to her father’s funeral.’

Interview by Emma Mustich

January 9, 2011

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Eloisa James

Eloisa James

Eloisa James is the New York Times bestselling author of more than 15 romance novels. She is an associate professor of Shakespeare at Fordham University in New York, where she also leads the Creative Writing Department. Her latest book, The Lady Most Likely…, co-written with romance novelists Julia Quinn and Connie Brockway, came out in December.