Under the soft glow of a red stoplight, romance novels finally wooed Amy Bright.
A self-proclaimed “literary snob,” Bright, 44, grew up resisting the siren song of moonlit embraces, coy smiles and that inevitable “happily ever after.” When she finally gave in and cracked her first cover, it was love at first sight.
“I told you so,” says Bright’s older sister, Linda Jesionka, 48, who started reading romance in her preteens. For years, the sisters danced around the genre, Bright sidestepping Jesionka’s book recommendations.
In June 2006, at an extra-long stoplight, Bright peeked at the first page of a Julia Quinn romance novel foisted on her by Jesionka. That day, she put the brakes on her pride and prejudice and became an avid reader of the romance novel.
Not long after, she started writing one of her own as Amylynn Bright — a combination of her first and middle names.
“It sounds author-y,” she says.
Bright self-published her first book, “Lady Belling’s Secret,” in February, and “Miss Goldsleigh’s Secret” followed in May. She will wrap up the trilogy of historical, romantic comedies in December. She also has a published novella — “The Sea Rose”— and has already developed a fan base. She squeals when she talks about fan mail. It “boggles” her mind.
Although romance novels consistently top best-seller lists, and readers loyally follow their favorite authors, literary circles tend to cling to attitudes that mirror Bright’s old perspective. Often missing out on the respect given to other genres, romance novels are mislabeled as “beach reads” — simple, frothy and full of sex, sex and more sex.
“Romance is about the relationship and things that happened around that relationship,” Bright says. “The covenant that you make with the reader is that there is going to be a ‘happily ever after.’ It’s not mommy porn.”
That’s not to say that erotica is not a niche. E-readers make racier reads accessible, embarrassment-free and a growing part of the larger genre that mixes romance with mystery, comedy, suspense and history — and just about anything goes.
Bright leads the Tucson chapter of Romance Writers of America, the Saguaro Romance Writers, as the group’s president. Although it has a handful of men, the community thrives as a sisterhood. The group boasts more than 80 members who add bursts of variety to the genre.
Ever-popular is the paranormal tale of star-crossed lovers — think vampires and werewolves mingling with humans.
Cynthia Somerville, 50, started her writing career in 2006, veering temporarily from her corporate day job into a world where passion and magic go hand in hand.
“There’s something very alluring about a hero that will love you forever,” Somerville says. “There’s that sense of danger that this man could rip your throat out when he’s kissing you, but you trust him because he loves you.”
Somerville, who goes by Cynthia Garner in print, cameos Tucson in several of her books, jetting the characters between the Old Pueblo and other intriguing locales such as islands off the coast of Cornwall, England.
“I love it here, and I’m proud of living here and the ruggedness of the desert and the mountains,” Somerville says. “That’s why I like setting stories here.”
Arizona’s landscape also works well for cowboy love stories. Vicki Lewis Thompson, a New York Times best-selling author with more than 100 published books, has used her home state as a setting before.
Thompson, 68, began her writing career as a general-assignment reporter at The Arizona Territorial. Like Bright, she once turned up her nose at romance novels. Thompson grew up reading the classics. She wanted to write, but never considered putting pen to paper to write a book. She turned to newspapers instead.
While interviewing romance writer Mary Tate Engels for a newspaper story, romance swept away her “snobby English major” attitudes, launching Thompson into a lifelong love affair with the genre in the 1980s.
Like campfire stories of yore, Thompson says, romance engages and satisfies.
“It brings order to a world that we don’t feel has that kind of order,” Thompson says. “In a story, you can make it all work out the way we would like to see it work out if we could play God. The sweet couple gets together, and the nasty people find that they have a horrible life. We can make it all just.”
Writing feel-good justice that delights readers does not come as easily as reading it.
Thompson has to settle in. She snuggles into her bright red chair in front of the fireplace. In the winter, flames roar. In the summer, a strand of lights placed on the logs twinkles. She kicks up her feet and pulls her Acer notebook computer into her lap — the closest she can get to a yellow legal pad and stay efficient. With snacks and a drink nearby, Thompson can write 15 to 20 pages on a good day, writing for six hours to the tunes of Enya or, during a book’s climax, the soundtrack for “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.”
With this setup, a 250-page book takes Thompson about a month. Her next book, “Cowboys and Angels,” comes out in November. She’s a pro by now, winning the high honor of a Romance Writers of America Nora Roberts Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008, but it took her some time to get here.
“At first, I wasn’t comfortable with the idea of making something up, because I had only written nonfiction,” Thompson says. “I remember taking my reporter’s notebook and sitting there pretending I was taking dictation from my characters.”
For Bright, penning historical romance is a closer marriage of fiction and reality. In order to sweep readers into an era of petticoats and carriage rides, her writing comes only after hours of research.
She has to check everything. A hero who lives in a house full of women cannot be described as “drowning in estrogen.” Estrogen had not been discovered in the book’s era, so Bright compromised, drowning her hero in lace and hairpins instead.
She does her writing in the wee hours of the night after the 9 p.m. bedtime of her two kids has come and gone. Most nights she’s up until 2 a.m., hopping out of bed in the morning for the mad dash to school at 8:15. Then it is off to her full-time job at a bank. Most days go like this, with her husband, Michael, getting off work to pick the kids up from school, start homework and cook dinner.
When she has time, Bright writes from Starbucks or Beyond Bread, escaping the call of laundry and kids. If she stops moving, she will sleep anywhere.
Her family and co-workers keep her going. When she first started writing, she would print the pages of her draft for her co-workers, including Jesionka, to read. They would snag the pages, devour them and then offer advice, often letting Bright brainstorm and talk through slumps.
“For me, I was never really into romance, but Amy was like, ‘Just give it a look over and let me know what you think,’ ” says one of Bright’s co-workers, Susanna Luquez, 32. “I read all the chapters she gave me, and working with her and knowing her, her personality comes out in the book, so it is so much fun.”
Despite her long hours, Bright comes in to work chipper, says Luquez, though the journey to publication has not always been smooth. Deciding to go the route of self-publication, Bright worked with professionals to gut and then polish her books, opening them up to critique that sometimes crippled.
“There was a day she called me from the grocery store and was like, ‘I’m lying on the ground in the produce section,’ ” Jesionka says. “I’m like, ‘OK. Get off the floor. It will be OK.’ (The editing) made us feel like we were putting something out there that was worth other people buying.”
Although Bright says her life falls into a pattern, she readily acknowledges being dramatic about some things — especially after receiving edits.
“The first thing I do is cry, and there’s yelling and anger and nasty words,” Bright says. “Nothing (Linda) or my husband say will make it better. I just want to complain and whine and be a miserable wretch for at least 24 hours, and then you suck it up and start fixing it. It’s a lot of hard work.”
Bright’s writing seeps into every part of her life, and her life also bleeds into her writing. Her dog bounded across the pages of her first book, and the heroine of the second book suffers migraines, as Bright does. Every now and then, she’ll have a conversation and think, “That’s totally going in the book.” Still, there is a line.
“I don’t know if my relationship with my husband necessarily finds its way in there, because you really have to mess with people’s lives, and I personally don’t want my life messed with,” Bright says. “I have a very not-dramatic relationship with my husband. It’s nice and peaceful, and it’s exactly the way it should be. ... Who wants drama in their 40s? But when you get to play God, you get to really jack up people’s lives.”
Beyond the twists of the plot, the heart of a romance novel always returns to the love-struck main characters. Spoiler alert: The happy ending prevails. It must.
“You really go back to when you were playing make-believe and dress-up or taking your figurines to make stories for them,” Thompson says. “The magazines are full of gorgeous people and gorgeous guys, and you just give them a name, and you start believing they’re real.”