Smart is Sexy, Says Best-Selling Romance Author

An Evening with Julia Quinn and Sarah MacLean:

Rogues, Gamblers and Happy Endings, 7 p.m. March 4, Clark County Library, 1401 E. Flamingo Rd., free, 507-3459.

Sarah MacLean dedicated her latest book to “girls who wear glasses.” The Harvard-educated New York Times and USA Today best-selling author has a thing for smart girls, which is why she made one the protagonist in One Good Earl Deserves a Lover (Avon Books, $8). The historical romance, which debuted in January, tells the story of how a “brilliant, bespectacled daughter of a double marquess” connects with the “clever, controlled partner in London’s most exclusive gaming hell.” This is her sixth book, and the second in a planned four-book series, called Rule of Scoundrels. Yes, these are traditional romance novels, complete with Regency-England finery and semi-scandalous covers. However, this is no grocery-store paperback. MacLean’s writing is strong, compelling and smart. Her ideas about romance writing are, too.

On breaking the stereotype of the romance genre: “It’s widely viewed that romance heroines are somehow placeholders for the reader. And that romance readers are somehow women who need fantasy in order to live a happy life. It’s a stereotype that we face everyday as romance writers and readers. Really great romances have heroines who are remarkably strong. Invariably, they are the hero of the story.”

On romance novels as a feminist act: “I give a lot of speeches at gender conferences around the country, and one of the things that I talk about is if you think of a romance novel as a metaphor, and you consider your romance heroine as your hero, and your hero as society at large, what you’re actually talking about is the feminist movement. A woman is fighting to be unique and accepted in the eyes of a larger, more powerful being. So you have a hero who’s got a ton of money, or has a title in my case, is physically more powerful—all the kind of things that we pile on to the Fabio image—and, ultimately, she brings him to his knees. If you blow it up to a 30,000-foot view, we’re talking about something much more powerful for women: the idea that we might actually, someday be accepted and viewed on an equal level by society at large. That’s why it’s such a feminist text. They’re written by women, they’re written for women, they’re written about women, they’re about female fantasy.”

On the bad-boy appeal: “It’s really fun to write about the bad boy who changes, the rake or the scoundrel who suddenly becomes the perfect husband and father. Certainly, that change always happens through love. But my heroines are all the heroes of their novels. They all change. They all have deep flaws at the beginning, and they end up being addressed and dealt with. … This is big picture. We can also talk about the sex bits, if you prefer. [Laughs.]”

On ambiguity: “I think there’s power in ‘happily ever after.’ There’s power in ‘he’s dead and never coming back,’ too [laughs], if you’re a horror-film fan. The power is the same in both situations. The ‘everything is going to be OK’ is why genre fiction gets lower marks from critics and from the general public. That’s because ambiguity is intriguing in the way that a finite reading is more rewarding emotionally.”

On the challenge of plotting a book: “I teach a romance-writing class, and we did a week on plotting. I plot from the end forward. In the end, they ride off into the sunset, so to speak, so you have to build the conflict so that when you get to the end, there is that finite end. It’s a scary thing when you start with two characters who are diametrically opposed. Or the main character in A Rogue by Any Other Name (Avon Books, 2012) is a horrible, horrible person, and has been horrible for years. Turning that ship around is easily the hardest book I’ve written. I can’t imagine writing if it ended ambiguously.”

On her own marriage and courtship: “Please, it’s shelved in fiction for a reason. We’ve been together for a lot longer than I’ve been writing. Romance is tough for him. I think it’s hard for men in general. We live in a world where—poor men—we lap up romance in the world, from ads to movies to books. And these guys are just normal guys, and they don’t know what to do. Eric, my husband, does read my books, and they crack him up, because he’s like, ‘You know men don’t look out the window and brood and think about their girlfriends. They’re like, is it raining?’”

On happy vs. sad endings: “In literary fiction, love is a catalyst for pain that moves the story forward. Happiness is somehow less valuable. My books are full of angst and drama and devastation. In the end, it all gets resolved, and tied up in a little bow. Wouldn’t it be nice if the whole world would be that way?”

On writing sex scenes: “Write drunk and edit sober.” [Laughs.]