Interested in how popular romance genres are being experienced and shared by readers, writes, and industry professionals, Kelly Choyke, a teacher at Ohio University and a Ph.D. Candidate in Women’s Studies, approached the RWA/NYC chapter to solicit interviews for her research study, The Power of Popular Romance Culture: An Ethnography of Feminism and the Romance Genres.
Being a qualitative research advisor myself, I was compelled to participate. Partly because I find her research topic interesting, but mainly because the interview was online, and thus I was not required to shower, change, brush my teeth, or unglue my ass from in front of the computer. I found her questions thoughtful and engaging and worthwhile for every romance writer to consider. I’m sure you will too.
Hm. Some include Anne Rice as a paranormal romance author, some don’t. If you do, I would say my obsession with paranormal romance began at age thirteen with INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE. But it fell off once I got into college and had to read mainly textbooks. I didn’t pick up a strict romance novel (ever in my life) until I was eight months pregnant. A friend handed me a copy of Lora Leigh’s Breed Series, STYX’S STORM. I arched my eyebrow, curling my lip. She laughed and said, “I bought it for the plane. The flight flew by.” That was the beginning of the beginning. I devoured her series in short order and wanted more. After a year, I decided I could write this stuff too.
Those the Breed Series is super addictive! When did you join the Romance Writers of America (RWA), when you decided to write?
First, I went to Milwaukee for a class reunion and sheepishly admitted to my good friend that I had gotten into romance novels and wanted to write them. He laughed and said, “My mom loves romance. I’ll introduce you.” Turns out, she’s none other than Barbara Vey, well known romance blogger for publisher’s weekly. She graciously advised me on my next steps, including joining RWA. She also provided me with an amazing opportunity to meet Sherrilyn Kenyon–who is a wonderfully kind and gracious woman.
Nice! How has your experience in RWA been?
Good. I think the most I have gotten out of it is access to contests, inexpensive online classes, participating in the local chapter, attending conferences, and being a part of a supportive community.
I hear that a lot from romance writers, how supportive the community is. In what ways is it supportive for you?
I think it’s the benefit of having a shared experience. It’s validating to meet women who have experienced similar things in terms of real life relationships, hopes for future relationships, and their experiences as writers. Also, there are more practical means of support, such as learning about opportunities to meet agents, pitch your ideas to editors, which blogs to follow, what contests to enter. A lot of my chapter mates follow my social media. And that helps build a platform.
What do your friends and family think about reading/writing romance?
Family and friends were supportive. When I told my family two of my aunts got very excited because (and I didn’t know this) they love historical romances. Friends thought it was kind of scandalous and intriguing. My husband hated the idea and felt threatened. We ended up getting divorced. But that was just one small grain of sand atop a mountain of other things.
Why do you think men feel threatened by romance?
Because men are very practical and dissociate sex and romance from love and commitment. They feel “romance” creates an unreachable expectation in their lover’s mind and so it arouses feelings of inadequacy.
What are your opinions on how society at large views romance readers/writers?
Love, sex, romance, how we interact in these kinds of relationships, its all a mirror for our earliest issues. From the time we are babies, seeking the “right” about of love, nurturance, pleasure and satisfaction from our parents. However that need is addressed (or not) affects most specifically the way we interact with our lovers–because they are the most intimately involved with us. Of course, because of this, the topic of romance arouses the most deeply felt emotions in people. They then build elaborate defense mechanisms and structures to defend against the pain of those underlying resentments, unmet needs, etc. That manifests through anxiety, anger, shame, and an overall rigid rejection of what he or she is unwilling to confront. I think that is why romance carries this stigma. Because it forces people to consider what they are otherwise avoiding, or wish were better or different.
That is a great point, so you think the romance genres make people uncomfortable with the [state/quality] of the relationships in their own lives?
At least those that have a guilt/shame based ego structure. Obviously, not all people feel that way or we wouldn’t be making money!
How has reading/writing romance regularly impacted your everyday life?
That is an ongoing struggle. I think there is a fine line between using your craft as a means of self-examination and diving into escapism. Character building is about being an examiner of the world and the people in it; like actors or therapists, digging into emotions and figuring out why people are the way they are. I think that’s why romance writing appeals to me as a therapist. On a day-to-day basis, it structures my activities and how I distribute my time, between writing and other things.
What positive impacts do you think romances can have on women’s lives? For example, do you think they are empowering in any way?
I think they are empowering when they show a woman how to stick up for herself, confront her issues, not be afraid to ask for what she wants/deserves, and be in charge of her own sexuality.
When it comes to romance, I used to strictly read paranormal romance. Nothing else quite allowed me to lose myself in the characters the same way. I think because I could project too much of myself into other genres and that made it hard for me to suspend disbelief. But then I saw Kristin Higgins speak at the national conference in Atlanta, and I had to read her stuff. Mark my words; they’ll make movies of her books one day. She’s a great contemporary writer.
How would you define feminism?
I think the word is often misinterpreted. There seems to be this prevalent notion that feminism is about having equal rights and acknowledgement as men, because women are just as skilled or adept at doing the same things that men do, but it’s more nuanced than that. It’s about receiving validation and acknowledgement for the things that women do. For example, sometimes a homemaker might get a curled lip from a career woman, because she’s “so oppressed.” But having embodied both roles, I can tell you, being a homemaker is the hardest and most thankless job I have ever had. Women are intuitive and hold the emotional structure and growth of a relationship not only with her spouse/lover but also, typically, for the entire family. That is so important on such an essential level and it is often completely invalidated—most painfully by those who directly benefit from it. In this instance, the career woman is not being feminist in my opinion, she has adopted patriarchal worldview.
In your opinion, is there a relationship between feminism and romance novels?
I think there would have to be. All art is a reflection of one’s self and his or her thought processes, if not his or her core issues. Books are just metaphors for conflicts human beings experience on a collective level. If they weren’t, no body would buy them. Romance sells more than any other genre alone in the publishing industry. And romance novels are written mostly by women. I think if a woman has the courage to put her thoughts, hopes, dreams, aspirations, fantasies, down on paper, then that is an act of faith and rebellion against a pop culture that seeks to paint her in a very specific, confining way.
I hope you enjoyed this interview, and if you are interested in participating in Kelly’s study, please contact her at Kelly@kellychoyke.com.