Joan Wolf’s first romance was published was published in 1980, and she has been one of the most respected authors in the genre ever since. She made a name for herself with her marvelous Signet Regencies, then moved into historical romance. She has also published contemporary romances, pre-history romances, and medieval mysteries along the way. Countless readers have enjoyed her wonderful characters, and her wonderful horses as well. ( http://joanwolf.com )
Joan Wolf: I actually wrote my first book when I was about 10. I wrote it with a friend who was as horse-crazy as I was. I remember that it was about a wild stallion in the west and the girl who tames him. As we had never been west of the Bronx, or ridden anything other than the trail horses at our local public stable, we obviously violated the first rule of writing – write what you know. But it kept us busy and out of trouble for one whole summer.
I always liked writing. I actually loved doing term papers. I was the obnoxious person who had her paper done a week before it was due. However, I never really thought about writing fiction until I retired from teaching high school English to stay home with my new baby. New baby. New town. New state. I was very lonely. My plan had been to write my Ph.D. dissertation (on Shakespeare), but we didn’t have enough money to pay a babysitter so I could go up to the Yale library to do research. This was the time when romance was just starting to become popular, so I decided to try my hand at writing a romance novel while my son napped. I have never regretted not writing that dissertation.
MJP: What drew you to writing romance and historical novels?
JW: I had always adored Georgette Heyer’s books and when I came to write a book of my own, I found I really knew quite a lot about the regency period from reading her. I wrote regencies for quite a while (it was what my editor wanted), but then I branched off into other areas of history. I have always adored history. I get that from my dad. I do not exaggerate when I say that we used to sit at the dinner table and go through the list of the Plantagenet kings from Henry II to Richard III. (Come to think of it, I wonder why I never wrote a book about the Plantagenet kings?)
MJP: That will be great if you do it, Joan! What was your first book, and how well do you think it characterizes your latest work? How has your work changed, and what has stayed the same from the beginning?
JW: My first book was called The Counterfeit Marriage. I have never ever re-read it. It was so sappy. Drippy, actually. Fortunately, Hilary Ross, then editor at NAL, thought it was publishable and she bought it from me – along with a contract to do two more regencies. By the time I did the fourth one – A London Season – I think I hit my stride. Anyway, that’s certainly the first of my books that I would recommend anyone to read.
The change in my books from then to now is a progression of ‘cleaning up’ my writing. As I went along, my prose became sparer and clearer. When I think of the profusion of adjectives that litter my first books, I am horrified.
What has remained the same is my belief that character is the most important thing in a novel. A book can have the most exciting plot in the world, but if the characters don’t come to life and grip the reader, then the book is not for me.
MJP: What was the biggest mistake you made when you first began writing?
JW: My biggest mistake was to stay with my first agent and my first publisher for so long. There was a window of time when I think I could have jumped my sales considerably if I had been given the right push. Ah well. “Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these, ‘it might have been.’”
MJP: Staying too long seems to be a common mistake among long term career writers. But now for the fun stuff! In May, Chicago Review Press is reissuing The Road to Avalon, Joan’s Arthurian novel that was first published in 1988. Almost twenty years later, it’s still being read and loved. Can you tell us something of how you came to write The Road to Avalon?
JW: I fell in love with King Arthur when I was in high school and went to see Richard Burton in Camelot on Broadway. I cried my little teenaged eyes out at the end of that play, and after that I began to read everything I could on Arthur. The whole time that I was writing regencies, and short contemporaries, and straight historicals, I was planning to write a book about Arthur. I just wanted to make sure that I was ready, that the book would do him justice.
I think it may have. Certainly the response to The Road to Avalon has been amazingly enthusiastic. Even after all these years I have new people writing to tell me that they have discovered the book and that they absolutely loved it. I even had a whole class of high school students (who had to read the book for school) write to Oprah and ask that she make it one of her recommended books! I’m absolutely delighted that it is being re-published. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s going to be available in most stores. People are probably going to have to order it over one of the Internet sites – Amazon or Barnes and Noble. ( http://tinyurl.com/2lqhse or http://tinyurl.com/3xh5xj The new cover is shown on the right; the old cover is above.)
MJP: I read The Road to Avalon when it came out, and even twenty years later, the story and characters were vivid in my mind when I reread the new edition. There are many Arthurian books. What do you think makes The Road to Avalon so special? Would you share some thought on Arthurian stories, which are collectively known as the Matter of Britain?
JW: One of the things that struck me as I read the literature about Arthur was that the king was rarely the central character in any of the books or poems that were supposedly about him. The books often featured Lancelot and Guinevere, or Merlin, or Gawain, or anyone except Arthur. Even in T.H. White’s marvelous book The Once and Future King, Arthur appears rather like a little old man in bedroom slippers. I began to think about why this was so, why Arthur never seemed to be made the hero of his own story, and I came up with an answer.
It’s very hard to make a great hero out of a man whose wife prefers another man. Arthur, in short, is a cuckold –hardly a heroic position to be in. And the Lancelot-Guinevere love affair is too integral a part of the story not to include it. It’s essential to the legend.
I got around this problem by giving Arthur a great love of his own. And I used another Arthurian character who was very much at hand – Morgan le Fey – to do this. I must say, I think it worked out very well.
The book about Arthur that I like the most is Rosemary Sutcliff’s Sword at Sunset. I read this when I was in college, and I loved the way she set Arthur in the historical time in which he probably lived – shortly after the Romans had pulled out of Britain. This is the time period in which The Road to Avalon is set.
MJP: Which book, if any, was the most difficult for you to write, and why?
JW: The most difficult books for me were the last three books that I wrote: White Horses, To the Castle, His Lordship’s Desire. I have suffered all my life from migraine headaches and, while I was trying to write those books, the medications I had been taking for years ceased to work and I had a headache every single day. I wrote all three of them with cardboard taped over my left eye because of the knife-like pain that constantly stabbed behind it.
It was truly a horrible time. I was hospitalized for ten days at the Michigan Institute for Head and Neck Pain (to no avail), and I underwent disc replacement surgery in my neck to see if that would help. (It didn’t) I was so drugged up I could hardly stand. Really really bad time. If people were disappointed in those books, there was reason to be.
I’m happy to report that the headaches are now gone – due to a massage technique called trigger point therapy. (I highly recommend the book – Trigger Point Therapy Workbook by Clair Davies). I am enjoying writing much more now that I am healthy again. (Note from MJP: other authors have also reported great results in controlling pain with the techniques found in this book.)
MJP: What do you consider key elements of a great story?
JW: For me, it’s character. When I think of a book I love, I always think of the characters. If an author can make a character come alive and live in your brain as if she was a real person – that’s a good book. This is why I enjoy getting mail from readers asking me questions about my characters, or asking me if I’m going to write a book about one of my secondary characters. It makes me feel as if I’ve done my job.
MJP: Are there any trends you hope to see in romance in the next few years?
JW: I find the present-day insistence on frequent sex scenes in a romance to be a problem for me – and for any other historical writer, I should think. Well-bred young women who lived before the 20th century did not have sex before they were married. Many of my old regencies dealt with the growing relationship between the hero and the heroine. They fell in love because they were the right people for each other. Each filled an emotional need the other had. This growing love is finally expressed in marriage and sex.
The problem with writing historical romances is: if you’re writing a novel about two people who aren’t married, how do you keep getting them into bed, as seems to be required? I have to confess, I haven’t figured it out yet.
MJP: What is the best part about being a writer? The most frustrating?
JW: The best part of writing is when you have a day when everything has gone well and you can look at the scene you’ve written and say, YES!!!
The most frustrating part of writing today for me is the necessity to write specifically ‘for the market.’ The market has a series of niches which editors want their books to neatly slot into – for example, it’s a given truth in today’s publishing world that that all romances must be ‘hot.’ Georgette Heyer wouldn’t have a prayer today. Her characters don’t even kiss until the last page – even if they’ve been married for the whole book!
It’s getting more and more difficult to sell a book that doesn’t fit into the parameters set by ‘the market.’ If I sent The Road to Avalon out today I’d probably be told that ‘the last book we did on Arthur didn’t sell very well. It’s been over done. Sorry.’
I want to thank Mary Jo Putney and the Word Wenches web site for giving me this opportunity to talk to you. It’s been extremely enjoyable to babble on about myself. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go back to my latest book and try to figure out where I can fit in some sex.
MJP: Your thoughts on publishing are in line with some discussions we’ve been having here, Joan. Thanks so much for visiting us today!
Comments and questions for our guest? Memories of your favorite Joan Wolf story? (That’s a tough choice, but I have a particular fondness for an outrageously delicious Valentine’s novella she once wrote.) And order your copy of The Road to Avalon today! You won’t regret it.