Interview de Susan Napier – VO

Onirik : How did you succeed to get your first book published ? And why do you write « sentimental novels » ?

Susan Napier : I started writing my first book, “Sweet Vixen” when my second son was born. At the time I was working as a freelance scriptwriter and wasn’t planning on going back to full-time work until my sons went to school. I thought it was an ideal time to try my hand at writing a novel. I chose to write a Harlequin romance because I loved to read romances, and I knew that Harlequin published internationally, so if I succeeded in getting into print I would have world-wide sales. It took me about 18 months to write the book, and when I sent it in to Harlequin they replied that they liked my writing but the plot needed to be completely restructured. It took me another year to do the re-write, which was then accepted for publication. By the time “Sweet Vixen” came out in 1983 I had already finished a second book and was working on a third.

I read widely in all genres, but I especially love reading romances of all kinds – contemporary, historical, fantasy. Harlequin romances used to be serialised in the women’s magazine that my mother subscribed to when I was a teenager, so that was my first introduction to the exciting, upbeat stories about love that always had happy endings.

Onirik : you write with talent a difficult and special « format harlequin » short novels. Your introductions and endings are very elaborated, worked. I take an example (one of my favourites books) « reckless conduct » (séductrice d’un soir). The introduction is a model. All the story is related, but we don’t understand theses informations (except if we read this novel one more time !). Furthermore, the ending is the « malicious » very same. You are conversant with this work. I adore the first paragraph of « fortune’s mistress » translated from french (Le secret de la femme gantée)

– « I think I’m in love ». Reading her newspaper, Maggie Cole doesn’t look up her husband.
– « I’m so happy for you », she say distractedly [[could you excuse my translation ? I haven’t the english text]].

Are you comfortable with this « format » ? Is it a perpetual challenge ? Do you want take your time to write 400 pages ?

Susan Napier : I am perfectly happy with writing short contemporary romances. Part of the challenge for me is taking an elaborate or unusual fantasy and fitting it into the standard romantic format, sometimes by violating the accepted conventions of the genre to create unexpected surprises for the reader, but always delivering on that unbreakable promise of a happy and satisfying ending for the hero and heroine.
In Fortune’s Mistress, the whole plot for the book grew out of those first few lines dancing around in my imagination… a husband telling his wife over the breakfast table that he was in love with another woman. Instead of her husband’s declaration being shocking and hurtful to Maggie (as a reader might reasonably expect), she is delighted, and the story plays out as she actively helps him to pursue his true love while finding her own in the process.

I love providing the reader with something fresh and different within the accepted norm.

Onirik : An important element in your novels is the refusal of normal conventions. Harriet (reckless conduct) doesn’t transform into Grace Kelly but rather Marilyn Monroe. Finally, she’ll keep that physical appearence. Into « love in the valley (la beauté du diamant brut) Julia, with her juvenile, hoyden physique conceives to do domestic cleaning work is a fulfiling activity. Into « the love conspiracy » (une tornade rousse nommée Kat) the heroine is an actress and people think she’s a stripper. She fulfills this role with provocation. You appreciate these nonconformist heroines ?

Susan Napier : I love heroines who play against type, but although they may not fit the image that non-readers of romance have of romantic heroines, in fact there are as many different types of female characters in the romances as there are sub-genres and readers to appreciate them. The heroines in my books may be different in the details, but in some ways they are very much the same as other romantic heroines – they are usually strong (or find their strength in the arc of the story), independent (or discover their own ability to be independent), and willing to battle adversity and fight for their love (or realise their self-worth and capacity for loving and being loved). I also like to get the message across that a woman does not have to be the male stereotype of femininity to be worthy of my heroes. My heroes recognise and appreciate my heroines for their own special qualities.

Onirik : The hero seems often to be « harlequin prototype » : strong, brooding, good looking, and successful… so imposing. But, he becomes less impressive when we meet his insolent mother, mother in law or sister, conniving quickly with the heroine. The hero can fight one person but never two especially when he loves them… Do you want to create your hero more human ? Is it the reason ?

Susan Napier : Because the heroines in my books are usually strong, I must have a very strong, alpha hero to counter-balance her character. They may not meet as equals but at the end of the book they have come to know that they are equal partners in their relationship. Dominating males are a favourite of mine because they are a real challenge to the heroine. I like my heroes to a first appear to be emotionally inaccessible, to increase that sense of challenge, but as the story progresses and the heroine discovers more about him (his family, his background, the struggle he has had in order to build his successful life) she begins to understand the motivations for his behaviour and is able to appreciate his depth of character and find ways of establishing a strong emotional connection with him.

Onirik : Softly in romances, authors confront heroes characters… but, you prefer to opposite social classes with an ironic tone, as « designing woman (la femme modèle) a Vincente Minnelli film with Gregory Peck and Lauren Bacall. Is it an important subject for you ?

Susan Napier : I try to ensure that the emotional conflicts between my characters are very strongly based in a believeable reality, so that the reader knows that the obstacles to happiness are not going to be easily overcome. This creates the tension and excitement in the romance. Differences in social position and upbringing can create good, strong initial conflict between characters who are otherwise attracted to each other, and yet the problems can be resolved when the hero and heroine start really communicating, and realise that they may need to make compromises on their own selfish desires in order to put their relationship first.

Onirik : From the very first book you wrote, humour has been omnipresent and appears as an answer to every existential question . is it how you like to remedy all life’s woes? I think that because we acknowledge that the hero or the heroine is deeply alone and emotionally disturbed or very often been marked by life, tragedies or their childhood. Humour is there not simply to amuse and entertain the reader. Suddenly, one chapter crops up with dramatic tension, like the final confrontation between Hugh and Julia in « love in the valley », where she voluntarily pushes him to the limit… after the humoristic atmosphere, it becomes so impressive but so exciting ! Did you want to accentuate the contrast between laughs and tears ?

Susan Napier : The combination of laughter AND tears are part of the universal appeal of romances.

One of the things that first attracted me to my husband was our shared sense of humour. I think that sharing laughter is one of the keys to a good relationship, and critical to an enduring love. If you don’t both find the same things funny, how can you truly share your enjoyment of life with your chosen partner?

Being able to laugh at yourself is also an important indicator of character. People who are confident in themselves are far more likely to be tolerant of teasing. Thus humour is very important in my books as a way of showing how characters connect with each other. Witty conversations and sexy banter are also a big part of the attraction I create between hero and heroine, and sometimes comic situations can heighten tension or create a welcome relief from the powerful emotional intensity of the darker themes of the book. It requires some skill to balance these two things, so that the emotional anguish that the characters invariably suffer never overburdens the upbeat theme, and the humour never dominates to the extent that the book is funny rather than emotionally satisfying. Without lighter moments to contrast with the dark passions, the books would not be as enjoyable to read. As a romance writer, I am always conscious that my primary job is to entertain – women read these books for fun!

Onirik : When you write plots, do you have your own limits or criterias or do you have limits or taboos fixed by the publishing house ? I know that criterias are different according the nations, they’ve all got different tastes…

Susan Napier : Harlequin do issue very broad guidelines for the kinds of story you write (e.g. the Harlequin contemporary line I write for does not encompass paranormal themes) – but there are so many sub-genres in romance that in truth you are only limited by your own imagination. The more books you write, the more flexibility you gain in pushing the envelope. The only really unbreakable rules are to stick to the word-length for your particular line (if I sent in a 100,000-word manuscript it would not be acceptible as a Harlequin short-contemporary), to use plots which fit into the general theme of the genre and language that is appropriate (nothing overly offensive) and to make sure that the hero and heroine dominate the action and that your story ends happily for them both. That happy-ending is non-negotiable for a romance. In a sense romances are morality tales, for usually good behaviour is rewarded and villains (and villainesses) get their satisfactory comeuppance.

Onirik : Who are your favourite authors ? Do they inspire you for your own books ?

Susan Napier : I presume you mean romance authors. The first romances I remember reading were Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances and I still keep her inspirational books. Her dialogue is wonderful and her plots and characters are always multi-layered. Penny Jordan and Charlotte Lamb were the Harlequin romance writers whom I aspired to emulate when I started out. I love Sophie Weston’s Harlequin romances because her heroines are always so intelligent and practical and I enjoy Lynne Graham because her heroes are infuriatingly fabulous while her heroines are often charmingly ordinary (ie, could be you or me!). I’ve enjoyed Linda Howard and Nora Roberts’ contemporaries for many years. I love Anne Gracie, Mary Balogh and Jo Beverley’s historical romances, and J.R.Ward and Nalini Singh’s paranormal series.

I actually read very widely, both in fiction and non-fiction and have too many favourite authors to name!

Onirik : Harlequin celebrates in France, one anniversary : 30 years. I read the first books in 1978. The New-Zealanders authors were Essie Summers, Robyn Donald, or Daphne Clair… Your first book « love in valley » was published in 1986 and I loved and kept it. I looked out for the following novels. It’s so great to realize that your current books are so dynamic, enthusiastic. You simply add a dose of sensuality and modernity and the result is terrific for our greatest pleasure… actually, many of your compatriots have been publishing excellent books, like Nalini Singh, Elizabeth Hoyt, Jan Colley (a fan of rugby like me !). It seems to me that they were less present before. Is it entirely coincidental or is New Zealand a favourable country for writers ? We think New-Zealanders authors don’t write like Americans… maybe contemporary vocabulary, straightforward and cynical language, something more hard, less mushy). Do you notice differences ?

Susan Napier : “Love in the Valley” was actually my second book – but it’s a favourite of mine, too, and I still haven’t finished writing stories featuring the Marlow family. New Zealand is a small country and the Romance Writers of New Zealand is a very active association. Robyn Donald and Daphne Clair are not only prolific authors themselves, but also regularly run romance-writing courses from which a number of published NZ romance authors have graduated. We also have The Clendon Award, which is an annual competition for the best unpublished romance (originally launched as a way of encouraging members of the RWNZ to “finish the damn book”) which has lead to publication for several winners.

As a nation, New Zealanders are big book-buyers and readers, so it is not surprising that we have spawned such a number of popular writers. Although America has recently had a big cultural influence on New Zealand (as it has had in so much of the world via televison and films) my own personal influences as far as romance-writing is concerned have been largely British, and my Harlequin books are published through the London editorial office. My preference is for the hard-edged sophistication of the traditional European hero and the dominance of the action from the heroine’s point-of-view, which I perceive as being different from the more sensitive American ideal hero (unless military/ex-military) and the increased emphasis on the male point-of-view.

Onirik : Your novels are reading as films… with a little taste of romantic comedies in the forties or fiveties, especially when the hero is wrong about the heroine motivations, like « tempt me not » (la tentation de Victoria) or « accidental mistress » (une liaison défendue). You push the limit with « just once » (la baie des amants) when you describes scenes of « to have and to have not » (le port de l’angoisse avec Humphrey Bogart et Lauren Bacall) one of my favourites movies. These sentimental comedies are a source of inspiration ?

Susan Napier : I started out as a journalist but I also spent several years just before I began writing romances as a script-writer for a film and documentary maker, so I am very aware of the importance of dialogue in story-building. I am also a big movie fan and love those old Bogart-Bacall productions, and romantic comedies from the 1950s.
The writers for those movies were working under the constraints of censorship at the time, and the witty and articulate interchanges between characters were often a subsitute for the explicit love-scenes which feature in modern movies (to the detriment of dialogue!). I think that restrictions often bring out the best in the imaginative writer, because it challenges him/her to think of new ways to get the information across. For example, there is little swearing in a traditional romances, and it is quite a challenge to put angry words in an alpha’s hero’s mouth without including curses – but it can be done. You just have to be more creative. If you edit out the swear-words you find you must substitute powerful, emotive words that actually mean something.

An articulate hero and heroine can build lots of sexual tension in a story without even touching each other, and when they do touch….well, a good writer has made sure that it has double the emotional impact!