Monday 26 March 2007

Heart Burn: Why Do They Love/Hate Windwalker So?

Probably because my new book, Season of the Witch, is attracting quite a bit of review interest, I have received a number of messages from readers who are new to my work, asking me how my previous novel, Windwalker, got to be classed as a romance novel. The answer has to do with ex agents, publishers, marketing decisions and other gruesome things. Suffice it to say that in the process Windwalker became my most controversial - although biggest-selling - book.

I wanted to write a great love story in the tradition of Wuthering Heights. Not that I would ever be as arrogant as to think myself in the league of the divine Ms. Bronte, but I too wanted to write a dark, gothic tale of two self-destructive lovers. I placed my story inside Namibia, a country I love passionately and whose terrible beauty I believed was the perfect backdrop for a story about murder and redemption. As always I seasoned the narrative with a dash of the paranormal. Readers of love stories, I was convinced, would adore it.

They hated it.

Or at least, some of them did. Up until the publication of Windwalker I had been fortunate: reviewers had been kind to me. So I admit to being a little spoilt and unprepared for the venomous grass-roots reviews that came my way when Windwalker was launched. I’m talking about the kind of reviews you would find, for example, on Amazon. In other words: the views of ordinary readers, the people I care about most.

It is flattering - and from a professional viewpoint essential - for print reviewers to like your work. But I write for ordinary book lovers who rely on stories to add joy to their lives and fantasy to their bread. If I disappoint them, well, then I’m not happy. I should immediately add that for Windwalker I’ve also received some of the most positive and heartfelt reviews I’ve received for any of my books: people have written to me that they’re keeping it permanently on their bedside tables, that they’ve bought it for all their family members, that it is the most heart-breaking story they’ve ever read and so on. It became clear very early on that readers either hated the book with a vengeance or loved it to pieces. Again, take a look at the Amazon reader’s review page for Windwalker: both viewpoints are represented in technicolour.

Below you will find a humorous piece I wrote when the controversy was at its peak. I had meant to submit it for publication but in the end I decided against it. It was written more for own benefit - I was starting to take myself a little bit too seriously - and I needed to remind myself that humour is what keeps us sane. As G.K Chesterton said: "Angels fly because they take themselves lightly..."

So for all of you who had contacted me about this book, I post this one for you. And I would love feedback on the topic. What is the definition of a love story? What constitutes romance? Are they one and the same? Let me know!


Someone once said Agatha Christie gives more pleasure in bed than any other woman. Sadly, I can not match the allure of the redoubtable Ms. Christie, but the great lady has often served as inspiration. As a writer I am well aware that writing is all about seduction. It is about romancing the reader.

But the course of true love rarely runs smoothly as I discovered with the recent publication of my book, Windwalker.Since its release, I’ve had reason to ponder the Scheherazade-like (amuse me or I’ll chop off your head) relationship between writer and reader. Readers can be unforgiving. Especially, as I’ve discovered, romance readers.

By googling myself (a masochistic pleasure authors tend to indulge in from time to time) I have discovered that readers either adore my book, or loathe it with a passion. Some reviewers state that my book had moved them profoundly and had even brought them to tears. Others sound as though they feel like bursting into tears as well, but for wholly different reasons. The venom of some of these reviews has startled me, especially as the main reason for the invective appears to be the fact that I have broken the "rules". Somewhere along the way, I have violated a contract I made with readers when a romance imprimatur was stamped on the spine of my book.

But what then, is "romance?" Is it really a cookie cutter term? Windwalker is my third book. I’m usually marketed as a mystery writer. But Windwalker was my attempt to write a story about soul mates, surely the most romantic of concepts. It is the story of two lovers travelling through time, desperately searching for each other, but the one always walking just a little too far ahead of the other. In this lifetime, however, they are destined to meet.

So what is the problem with this scenario?Windwalker"breaks the cardinal rule" thunders Wendy Crutcher of "[It] has an ending that has no business being in a novel marketed as romance." And S.Cook from Alabama complains bitterly on the customer review page that the hero "stays around for only a few days and then poof he’s dead."

Well, it isn’t exactly "poof", it is a sensitively – even, dare I say, poetically – described demise, but I sympathise with Ms. Cook. She obviously expected a conventional happy ever after, not an ever after with a twist in the tail.

The great romance characters of all time – Cathy and Heathcliff, Scarlett and Rhett, Amber and Carlton – all loved and lost. Madness, betrayal and hopeless yearning permeate these magnificent tales of grand passion. Consider The Hunchback of Notre Dame: one of the most poignantly romantic books ever written. In the very last scene, two years after the main events of the book had already taken place, two skeletons are discovered in the vault of Montfaucon. The female was buried after she was hanged but the male – a hunchback – shows no fracture of the neck and had obviously come to the vault to die. When an attempt is made to disengage it from the female skeleton in its grasp, it crumbles to dust! Now is that not a scene that will linger in the mind far longer than if the two lovers had hobbled off hand in hand into the sunset with the bells of Notre Dame pealing merrily in their wake?

Another reviewer accused me of not including in my book any of the "good stuff." She did not specify what the superior stuff is and I puzzled forlornly over this comment until I read an article about the success enjoyed by writers of historical Scottish romances. It contained an extract from Devil in a Kilt by Sue-Ellen Welfonder in which the novel’s heroine spies on the hero as he undresses. The sight of so much unadulterated maleness takes her breath away especially when "he rolled a pair of thin woollen braies down his muscular legs. Faith, even his buttocks appeared fierce and proud!"

I like the perky buttocks – yeah! The idea that there can be something erotic in watching a guy take off his socks is more problematic for me although I suspect my husband may not be removing his socks in quite the right way. But I finally "get" what the "good stuff" is. And I agree: I need more of it. Having said that, for much of the book my hero is dressed in rubber (he’s a diver). Titillating, yes? Well, I thought so.

Not enough eroticism and the wrong kind of villain. I was accused of creating an over-the-top villain who enjoys clubbing baby seals. The Romantic Times Book club advises "animal lovers and fans of traditional romance to give [the book] a pass." One Amazon customer who actually liked my book (five stars) states unequivocally that my villains are too "twisted" for a romance novel. She wasn’t prepared for their "sheer evilness – not dark, sexy evilness, but icky, sicko, can-sane-men-really-think-like-this mess."

Ah, not fair. First, I did not want Count Dracula as my villain. Second, my villain isn’t swinging his club about in a mad frenzy because he enjoys watching seals die. He is making a living. He lives in, a country where sealing is, unfortunately, legal business. I certainly do not advocate this line of work and I was careful not to indulge in gratuitous excess: no graphic descriptions of splattered brains and no villain giggling madly with glee. When my villain kills animals he does so not as an exercise in sadism but because he is trying to earn money or wishes to cause my hero distress.

Did I want readers to react to what he’s doing? Did I want to create a realistic sense of place? Absolutely. This is - a beautiful but raw environment. The animals don’t wear cute outfits and the lions don’t burst into song. Well, at least not Elton John songs… But maybe realism and romance are mutually exclusive in the contemporary romance novel and I have unwittingly broken another rule.

We writers have ambitious hearts and we are needy. Some writers even admit to being addicted to the love their readers show them. I think the greater addiction is not wanting to be loved, but wanting to be read. Not all readers will be content with what they find in my books, but as long as they are intrigued enough to continue reading, contented author am I.

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