An Interview With Historical Romance Legend Lisa Kleypas


Greetings from Dallas and the RT Booklovers Convention, where I am currently wandering dazed through a thicket of bare male abs. Expect interviews and other dispatches. And, to kick off our coverage, the folks at Avon sent us the never-before-seen cover of historical romance star Lisa Kleypas’s (much anticipated) return to historical romance, Cold-Hearted Rake—plus a chance to chat.

More than any other writer, it was Lisa Kleypas that hooked me on romance for life, way back in high school. And I can tell you which book, too: it was Suddenly You, about a plump Victorian writer who hits her thirtieth birthday and decides, well, why not hire a man to divest her of her virginity? (It doesn’t quite work out that way, but what an opening.) That was pretty daring, especially back in 2001, but the book is a great example of Kleypas’s ability to juggle the sexy and the sweet.

For those of you hungry for details on the upcoming book, which is due out in October, with the full cover at the bottom of the post: “The in-a-nutshell version is, this man who is from a blue-blooded family but a distant branch of the family inherits this estate that’s in horrendous financial condition,” Kleypas told me. “You’ve got this absolute playboy who wants no responsibility, loves to chase women, has never taken care of anything or anyone in his life. He is faced with this estate in ruins and all these tenant families who need him.” Naturally, he and the late earl’s beautiful young widow (who wants him to face up to his obligations) strike sparks.

Kleypas and I also talked about how she got into writing romance, how the genre has evolved over the course of her nigh-on thirty-year (!) career, and how to craft a sex scene that’s actually good and doesn’t veer into Franzenian territory.

How did you get into writing romance? You got into it really young and you were pretty sure this was what you wanted to do, right?

I was really lucky. I know most people have to really search and try out different kinds of jobs, but the first minute that I decided I wanted to write a novel and started that first page, I really felt a click—that sense of everything falling into place. I knew it was what I was meant to do and what I wanted to do forever.

I had always been a huge reader, and then when I was 16, I went to a summer camp, held at Wellesley College, a month-long program where you took classes and got to live on campus. I bought a pound of stationery so I could write all my friends and family, which they would really think was funny because I’ve written maybe five letters in my life. (I do email!) I actually started writing a novel on that stationery, because it was either that or do something athletic, which is not my deal. As soon as I started writing a historical romance, it was just incredible. It just was what I wanted to do.

And of course, it did not get published. It was terrible. I put everything in the world that I had ever loved in a historical romance into this book, so there must have been a hundred characters, all these subplots, the hero’s horse had his own subplot and personality.

But I just loved it so much that whether or not I started out with any talent, I was willing to really work at it. So over the next five years, I just wrote a book every summer, basically, and then about three months before I was going to graduate—I ended up going to Wellesley—I sent off a manuscript and got it accepted. So I sold my first manuscript when I was 20.

What drew you to the romance genre? Because of course there are plenty of genres out there.

Well, I love to read so many genres and I enjoy all of them, but romance has always been the only genre that I’ve really been interested in writing. It’s definitely the fact that it ends happily, with the heroine winning and succeeding and achieving the happy ending. But what drew me was the fact that the journey is so different in each story. You can take a hundred romance novels and they can be so radically different. You can have one with a werewolf and an alien and then you can have Regency England.

So the fact that it’s a guaranteed happy ending, but that the journey can be so different, is a good fit for my personalty.

Who are your influences? I’ve read you talk a lot about Judith McNaught and Kathleen Woodiwiss, for instance. Who really shaped you in the beginning?

I hope this doesn’t sound pretentious, but I read Wuthering Heights and it was a bolt of lightning. It was back in high school and it was compulsory reading—because who would read that when you’re that age if someone didn’t make you?—and the driven, tormented, powerful character of Heathcliff was just mesmerizing. That book was hugely influential to me, even though it didn’t have a happy ending and he’s really a pretty terrible character. The notion of this man who needed to be tamed and understood and all of that, that was powerfully attractive.

Also, E.M. Forster. I read that voluntarily, much later. Whenever A Room With a View and all the Merchant Ivory versions of E.M. Forester came out, I started to read the books. And there is something about his voice that is so quirky and British, and the characters are so complex and the way they interact is just mesmerizing to me. They’re shaded interactions. A man can love a woman and vice versa, but they can have a lot of problems with each other and it’s just very sophisticated.

And then I could give you dozen of names of contemporary writers. I read everyone I can in the romance genre and I just love seeing what they do. Laura Kinsale, I’ve always been a huge fan of her. Have you ever read any of her things?

Yeah, her stuff is really good.

Isn’t she amazing? The way she uses words is so sensitive and so exacting, it’s just remarkable. I wish that I were friends with her and I could call her and make her write more books. And I love Loretta Chase and Tom and Sharon Curtis—oh my gosh, The Windflower was just so lavishly written, with ten adjectives in every sentence. I loved it. They convinced me that if I wanted to be really ultra descriptive then I’m going to throw out the whole Ernest Hemingway idea of being simple and sparse and just go for it. And it’s really fun to be able to do that.

It’s always interesting to me which subgenre people land on, because as you point out, you can write about aliens loving werewolves or you could write about Regency rogues or anything, really. There’s so much variety. How did you land in historicals?

Well, I love history and when I was a junior in college there was a particular professor—actually, it was at Boston College, because I decided to go to a coed college my junior year instead of going abroad, because I’d been with women for two years, and t’s very hard to get a date and you go off campus and it’s like, “Okay, you’ve got the weekend, go find a guy.” Not very easy.

So I decided to go for a year to Boston College. And there was this amazing Georgian history class taught by this professor who was almost completely deaf, and he was one of those teachers where he would tell you about Napoleon, the campaigns and the battles, but then he’d also tell you details like, “and then he went back to his tent and Josephine had arranged to surprise him.” He would tell you all these stories. And there was something about that particular class, it gave me such a good basis for that time period, Georgian leading into Regency, that it made me feel pretty confident I could try a book in that genre.

And then of course, I just love to read the historical books. Kathleen Woodiwiss was really a big influence.

I feel like the genre has changed so much but I’ll still go back and read the old-school quote-unquote “bodice rippers.” And of course they were such a big boom at the time. What about those books captured your attention that it set you on this lifelong career path?

You know, I love the history and the time period because it’s just different enough form our own that I can learn a lot by doing research. But the personalities of the characters, you can get away with so much more, especially where the heroes are concerned. In real life, I think most women want a modern man—really reasonable and kind and evolved. So thank God for those! But in the context of fantasy, and fiction, and romance, it’s really a turn-on to read about a man who is a lot more alpha, a lot more commanding. And I know that a lot of people have problems distinguishing between fantasy and reality thinking, oh, if you have a particular fantasy, then that must be what you want in real life. I don’t think most women have that problem, but there are some people that are irritatingly unable to distinguish between the two.

So this is my long-winded way of saying that you can get away with a historical hero being really alpha and really sexy and demanding. Really, you can do this in other romance genres too: like say if someone is a vampire or a werewolf, then he can be demanding and aggressive and alpha and everyone knows, well, he can’t help it because he’s a werewolf. In a historical romance, there’s something similar going on. Men had different standards back then, so you can get away with him being a lot more alpha.

That makes sense. I think people get confused about whether romance readers can sort fiction from reality and it’s really obnoxious, but I think it’s partly that when you move the action to the Georgian era or a world where vampires are real, the subgenre’s setting is clearly saying, “This is a fantasy, we all know it’s a fantasy, if this guy was doing this in real life you might hit him in the head.”


But all this being said, I do have personal rules when I’m writing these books. For example, no hitting ever. No physical abuse ever between the hero and heroine. To me, that’s a rule breaker and I can’t believe in a relationship that is going to be a happy relationship. Even in terms of verbal abuse, I have pretty strict boundaries with that, because once you feel like that respect is no longer there, if someone’s willing to hurt someone to that extent, to me you can’t recover from that. So even when I have characters in really intense situations, again—no hitting, no verbal abuse.

Sometimes when people ask me how you create chemistry between a couple, it sounds like an odd answer, but there has to be an underlying basis of respect. Because when you respect each other, then that means the other person really is a challenge. The hero is not going to be turned on by a doormat heroine. He’s got to respect her as an equal. And then when they argue or disagree about something, then the potential for sexiness really is there.

That makes a lot of sense. All that having been said, I think of your novels as being a touch more modern. When you were starting out, you would still stumble upon the occasional “forced seduction.” But your books really never trafficked in that. Or, for example, your heroine Lily Lawson, from 1993’s Then Came You, has an illegitimate child and she’s a professional gambler. That felt daring when I first read it. How did you develop your particular approach to what you were going to write and the stories you were going to tell?

If you read my books starting from early on all the way to now—which I would not recommend to anyone—you can see the slow maturation process that I’ve gone through. Painfully slow! Because I’ve learned, I got married, I had children—every stage of my life that I went through, some of it went into the kind of stories that I was writing. I’ll give you an example. When I wrote the Wallflower series [about a quartet of female friends], it was at a time when I had really been about all about my husband and two very young children, and I had really lost touch with a lot of friends. I wasn’t even that active in the romance community. So I was kind of lonely. And then, I met this little group of writers who became just incredibly close friends. My very best writer friend is Eloisa James, and she was one of that group. (And also, Linda Francis Lee was not part of that group but she’s another great writer friend.)

So when I struck up this friendship with these women, this basis of female relationships was so powerful in my life. You know, your female friends are just this incredible power source. Great advice, great support. So when I was thinking up an idea for a series, I thought, you know, in all the thousands of historical romances I’ve read, I haven’t really seen a lot about female friendships. And yet, back then in history, women had to depend on each other and help each other a lot. So that was when I came up with the idea of these four young women meeting each other, deciding that they were going to help each other and be friends and support each other in finding husbands and finding their place in the world.

So when something like that would happen to me it would affect my books and my plots.

There’s so much pressure to replicate success in the book industry but I feel like each one of your books is very individual and all the personalities are different.

I appreciate that! Thank you. You know, you want to set challenges for yourself. I had this editor, Ellen Edwards, a long time ago when I first started writing for Avon. And she told me, writers like Laura Kinsale or Johanna Lindsey (she was their editor too), they always tried to set up some sort of challenge for themselves that they had not attempted before, in terms of a plot or a character. I’ve never forgotten that. So when I sit down to plot a book, I’m trying to think—what have I not done before, what did I try before that I really didn’t well, let me come back again and try to get it right this time.

So there were things like with Suddenly You, it was this character who had just turned 30. And I’m sure I had just turned 30 not long before and was thinking about back in the 1800s, 30 for a woman was almost over the hill. And so when you’re looking around thinking, Oh my gosh, I’m 30, am I doing everything that I need to in my life? Am I fulfilled? What have I missed out on? So I was thinking about this 30-year-old virgin who’s successful and happy with her life in so many ways but thinking “I have missed out—I’ve missed out on romance and men and sex.” That’s the book where she decides for her birthday present she’s going to hire a male prostitute for herself. And that was just such a fun way to begin. And then of course when she finally orders one and it turns out to be the wrong guy and that just made it so much fun.

When you write something like that, do you ask yourself, “Am I going to be able to get away with this?”

Well, you know that eventually, if you go way too far, you’ve got an editor who’ll reign you in.

There were a couple of points in my career that I did try something that I didn’t end up doing very well. I actually in real life went to Russia on a trip to visit a friend—this was before I was married. And I stayed over there for three weeks and just fell in love with the culture and the history and I went to visit al these old Russian palaces and it was just gorgeous. And I came back and I wrote a couple of romance novels where I had Russian characters and they were partially set in Russia, and it just didn’t work out well. The books didn’t do well and I didn’t execute it well.

After that, coincidentally, I switched editors. So to the new editor, I said, if I go too far out on the limb you need to pull me back, but I need to keep trying to go out on that limb because if I hold myself back and I start self-policing, then everything I write’s going to be bland and safe. So you know, a partnership with an editor is crucial for that reason.

I was talking to my sister and asked if there was anything she wanted to know, and she asked: How did the books set in Russia happen?

You know what, sometimes when you’re doing something, whether it’s writing or baking, you can see that it’s going a little wrong, and so you try to fix it, and you put more in and you do more and rather than just leave it alone and set it aside and try something else you just keep working at it. Now I’ve learned to stop doing that.

I do think of your books as a break with old historical romance. They’re much more modern in the gender dynamics. And I think it’s interesting that people have responded very much to that—but then, if you change the setting to Russia instead of England…

When you’ve had a career as long as I have—because it’s been since I was 20 and now I’m 50—the only way to keep it fresh is to try new things. And it’s just not going to make all of my readers happy and the results sometimes don’t even make me happy. But if you don’t try these new things and keep challenging yourself, you get bored and you get burnout. I could sit down and theoretically write you a perfectly publishable romance and it wouldn’t have any magic or fun or spark in it at all. But obviously I don’t want to do that—I want to keep pushing and try to have fun with it.

And I should say—I actually enjoyed Prince of Dreams and my dream is for somebody to write a book about English diplomats at the Hapsburg court or something. I love romances set places besides England.

I do too! It’s funny, sometimes you just come up against your own limitations. You give it your best shot and sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t but you do always learn and that’s the important thing—keep learning, keep progressing.

And of course you tried contemporaries, and first-person contemporaries at that, and people loved them. How was it different writing Sugar Daddy and its sequels?

I love writing the contemporaries. It is so fulfilling. When I left Avon to write contemporaries with St. Martins, in 2007 or something like that, I wrote a good hundred pages or so for Jen Enderlin, who is the editor there. And she’s just an unbelievable editor. Fabulous. And she was like, “You know, it’s great and it’s fine but it’s still not there.”

It was hard for her to put into words and hard for me too, but we could both see that even though the story had potential, I hadn’t hit on what made it really gripping or exciting. so then I started to rewrite it in first person. And as soon as I did that, it was like magic. Stuff was just pouring out of my fingertips and for me, when you write in first person, it becomes so much easier to inhabit the character and there’s an immediacy about it that is so absorbing. And believe it or not, it’s actually quite a bit more intimate and even embarrassing to be writing the love scenes, because it’s like these things are happening to you. And that’s rare for me, because I’ve written so many of them, it’s hard to make me blush at all. But writing in first person, I kind of felt like I was exposing myself a little bit. So it was just fun. It was really exciting and great. I have Brown-Eyed Girl coming out in August and I hadn’t written anything on the Texas books or in first person for a while and as soon as I did, bingo, it just happened again.

Since you brought up the love scenes—is it difficult to keep them interesting? I can’t even fathom having to write five different love scenes and keeping them distinct and part of the plot. How do you approach that?

You know, there’s a certain amount of verbal sensitivity that you have to have when you’re writing these, because we’ve all read enough love scenes to where we’re kind of immune to the shock value. After the age of 12—or, you know, a little older than that, I guess, 15 or 16—you’re not going to be too shocked by somebody writing a scene about sex. To make it intimate and arousing and exciting, you have to find the details and you have to find the word combinations that really zing into someone’s brain and make them think Yep, that’s the smell, that’s the feel, that’s the taste. It’s the small graphic details that really make a sex scene come alive. It’s just so boring to read the same old graphic description of “put A into B.”

And not to—I don’t want to criticize Fifty Shades of Grey, because I’m glad she wrote it, I’m glad that so many women enjoyed it—but for me because there was no shock value in what she was writing and I didn’t read a lot of those zingy details, it wasn’t arousing to me that way that I would have hoped or the way that it would have been to someone who wasn’t a jaded old soul like I am, I guess! I was glad that so many other people enjoyed it.

People who haven’t read a lot of romance seem to either assume they’re super sweet and there’s no details, or they think, “Oh yeah, pornography for women” and act kinda gross about it. What do you think is the purpose of sex scenes in romance novels?

At the end of every single sex scene in a romance novel, something has to be different in the relationship than it was in the relationship before the sex scene happened. So there has to be an emotional change or an emotional difference. There has to be some sort of discovery or resolution or confirmation. Something has to happen in their relationship. I think for the most part, you can show me any book that I’ve written and point to the love scene and I can pretty much tell you what the purpose of it was, beyond arousal or whatever. I can tell you what the emotional purpose was. And that to me is really crucial and that’s really the difference between romance and porn.

To get philosophical—what do you think is the appeal of romance? Obviously it’s a huge business with a hugely loyal fan base, and I’m sitting here looking at my bookcases full of them. What do you think it is that draws such an enthusiastic readership?

Well, to me, the purpose of a romance novel is to give the reader an emotional experience. To make her feel something. I don’t know if you do this, but when I reread some of my old favorites, a lot of times I’ll just go to the good parts. And I don’t necessarily mean the sex scenes—I mean the sweet scenes that really make you sigh or the scene when they first meet, because you want that feeling that you got when you read it. Those wonderful smiles or sighs or wistful feelings or whatever.

I think that in our everyday lives, most of us have to work really hard. Most of us have to be really professional. Most of us have to be strong through really tough experiences. So you need just a little emotional break, or a little mental break. And when you sit down and read a romance novel, if it’s well done, you’re going to have a really wonderful emotional escape where you’re going to feel something really positive and really good. The only thing else I know that would do this is a really good glass of wine.

What do you think? Is that what it is as far as why you love it so much?

Yeah, I think so. I kind of love romances just because they’re entertaining, and they have female protagonists. So little of TV, for instance, has female main characters. But also I love the emotions and I really do enjoy that. That’s part of why I like them so much.

I do too. As well as that emotion that you get from them, I love when a romance novel has really great humor. Just all the positive feelings you get from it, and the laughs that you get. It’s just such a good, positive experience and you know, I’m fine with ambiguity. I’ll read books where you’re not really sure what happened at the end, whether someone’s going to be OK or not. But sometimes I just want a guarantee.

One thing that’s interesting about your background is you were Miss Massachusetts. Did that shape your writing in any way? That experience?

Not so much my writing. It was way back in the ‘80s, when we were proud of our big hair. But for me personally, it was a big thing, because I’d always been a bookworm. I’d always been relatively shy. With the Wallflower series, I felt like the one sitting at the side of the room, sometimes, waiting for someone to ask me to dance.

And so finally when I was 20, I’d lost the baby fat and I’d gotten in good shape and I felt like I wanted to try to do this. Because I thought if I was in this pageant and I got a crown or I won anything, that if someone told me that i was pretty, then I would feel that way. I would feel like I was pretty, and I would feel like I was a beauty pageant contestant. I’d never felt that way before.

But the revelation is that even when someone gives you a crown and tells you you’re pretty, it still has to come from inside, you still have to get it yourself. so after the beauty pageant it took several years for me to finally get the confidence and the self-approval to look in the mirror one day and say, “You know? I’m pretty great! I look great, I like who I am.” And gosh, I know that’s awfully philosophical. but it was good to learn someone can’t give you an award—it’s like The Wizard of Oz. They can give you the diploma but you were already smart. You have to figure out what you have inside.

And I feel like that’s a very romance novel idea, in a way. Because they’re are so much about internal experiences.

Absolutely. Part of how the romance genre has evolved in an incredibly positive way is that a lot of it is emphasizing the internal changes of the heroine, for her to discover her own power. That was not true of the old bodice rippers, for the most part. I’m sure you could find some that were better, but I think the whole genre has evolved to the point where now everyone expects a certain amount of internal development and recognition of your own power and worth.

One of the things that always strikes me when talking to people who don’t know as much about the genre is they assume it’s very static, and I’ve never found that to be the case. Even in the 15 years I’ve been reading them, a lot has changed. You’ve been writing them for thirty years at this point. How as the genre (and historical romance, too) changed over the course of your career?

Well, it’s exploded in terms of variety. It used to be chocolate, vanilla and strawberry and now there’s a thousand flavors. That’s been a really positive development because it allows for so many different things to happen. And then, really in terms of its emotional depth, I think that it’s really become—this is arguable, I guess—but it’s really become more about the heroine than it used to be. I think it used to be much more about the action and the faraway places and the sex and all of that. And now there’s still, obviously, tons of sex and great stuff, I think the main emphasis really is on the experience of the heroine. But that’s just my feeling. I don’t know what other people would say about it.

And I think the development of humor in historicals has been fantastic. It’s really added a lot to it. I think sometimes there’s a danger in going too far with that, because we’ve got to remember the emotional intensity can’t be diminished just because there’s humor in the book, that’s got to be there too or it’s not satisfying.

Do you ever see yourself writing a hero who’s, like, lovable but kinda hapless?

So hapless meaning not competent, or accident-prone?

Your characters, they’re all flawed in different ways and good at things in different ways. But could you build a romance around a guy who was kind of—I don’t want to say dopey, but less alpha I guess?

I guess I could write a hero who had weaknesses in areas that I haven’t explored yet. There has to be some level of competency or something in there to make you like him or identify with him. There’s this screenwriting teacher, Michael Hague, and he says at the very beginning of any story that you’re telling, the protagonist, you have to immediately identify with them.

So they have to be really competent or really likable, or else you put them in immediate jeopardy because those three things make us immediately root for a character or like a character. So for me a hero, you do have to have something that makes you admire or like him or be concerned for him.

And I also feel like women do enough caring and laboring in the real world. Sometimes you want somebody you’re not going to have to babysit, ever.

Yeah, exactly. We don’t want one more thing to have to take care of. It reminds, I was talking to another friend, Sarah from Smart Bitches. We were talking about this thing you used to read in women’s magazines a lot—you’re responsible for your own orgasm. And was telling her—you know, I have to be responsible for so many things. Do I have to do that, too?

Photo by Greg Lopez.

Contact the author at [email protected].

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