Not Dead Yet
It's never too late to fall in love! Rachel Dove, Ruby Lang and Julie Miller talk about gorgeous grans and second chance romances featuring heroines who aren't in their twenties anymore.
Rachel Dove ~ There's No Best Before Date On Love
23rd July 2019 is Gorgeous Grandma Day. The origins of this day stem from Alice Solomon, a woman who graduated from college at the age of 50 and felt rather put aside by society, as she had seen happen to many women 'of a certain age'. That got the ladies at Pink Heart thinking - why does this happen?
When Mad About The Boy came out, from Bridget Jones' creator Helen Fielding, a nation mourned. If you haven't read it yet, stop reading this now. Yep, right now. Go have a cuppa, flick to the next paragraph. Cos, Spoiler Alert!
Right, now you have been warned, I shall continue. The death of Mark Darcy, and his marked absence from the book upset some readers. Me included. I shudder to think of the emotional FB post I will have no doubt posted, the hours spent cradling his photo on my book jackets, the begging letters, unsent, written to the author pleading with her to scrap this book and all the hours and hours spent writing it. Once I had read the last page, and digested it, I came to a conclusion. This, for me, was the best book in the series. Mark Darcy dies, of course, but he lived first, and they had a life. Cut short, sure, but it happens. All too often, 'chick-lit' and romantic genre fiction are cast off as 'lesser works' and 'easy reads' but in the pages, real life issues are laid out. People fall in love, get married, have babies, and then they live happily ever after. Right? Wrong. People cheat, fall out of love, lose their partners to illness or accident, they age. Bridget in this book is still the scatty, panicky, hilarious, flawed woman we know and love, but she is more now. She is forever changed by the love affair of her younger years, she is battle scarred, and yet she still wants love. She is mature, but the old Bridget is still there, and still can't completely run her own life as she would like. She wants a future, someone to love and be loved by, and she still has plenty to offer.
After 30, 40, 50 and beyond, women still live. They love, they have sex, they belly laugh at their best mate tripping up on a night out or at the latest meme. My grandmother is 85, drives everywhere, uses Whatsapp, lives independently with her girl friends nearby, and has a much better social life than I have. She read the Fifty Shades trilogy and loved them, although to her 'they were a little bit tame.' My grandfather will be blushing in his eternal resting place, rolling his eyes at his wife who is one of the most vibrant, dynamic women I have ever met. I want to be her when I grow up. More importantly, I want to read about her.
There is nothing wrong with reading a book about a fresh faced 20 or 30 something, single, at a crossroads in her life, and following her adventures. We have all been there or will be there at some point, and the genre is fun, toe-curling, and full of fresh starts and happily ever afters. Beyond this first flush of love, the first kiss, the first home, there is the stuff of life. Married couples breaking up, choosing others, falling in love again and creating chaotic busy homes with their blended families. The genre might be considered slow to catch up, but I don't agree.
Bert Baxter in Adrian Mole (not strictly a romance, but bear with me) was a speak-as-you-find old man, and one of the most important relationships in Moley's life. The Dowager in Downton Abbey is the basis of my own formidable leader of the over 60s, Agatha Mayweather. The Westfield series of books I write for HQ all have young and old characters in them, all falling in love, dealing with past mistakes, and entering the next stages of their life. Many authors do this really well. Megan Attley, Mary Jayne Baker, Debbie Johnson, Kate Field, Manda Ward and Catherine Miller to name just a few. Just because a woman or a man has a divorce and a couple of kids tucked in their baggage, doesn't mean they needs to go to the knacker's yard and wait for their number to be punched.
The term Silver Fox is not there for nothing, although the media portray quite often the gaps between men and women. The fact that men age well, whilst women apparently don't, and need to be slathered in anti-wrinkle cream till we can simply slide to work, or into retirement, on our sagging bottoms, bingo wings and middle age spread. Men get this too by the way, six packs sometimes turn into kegs and barrels. It's a fact of life. Why not write about it? People still get jiggy with it past 35, and have a lot of fun!
Romance writers are a bold lot, with our feminist flags flying proud behind our deceptively cute and easy on the eye covers. Domestic issues, breakdowns, break ups, family issues, growing old, loss. We talk about mental health, the differences between the sexes, the generational differences and similarities. The fact that half the population don't know how to operate a washing basket lid, and the other half will never stop trying to explain the principle to them.
Diversity and more acceptance in certain corners of society mean that more and more people are reading about people like themselves in the pages - ageism is changing but still has a way to go, and romance authors are chipping away at these issues, one book at a time. Before I was a writer, I worked in a nightclub and Tuesdays were unofficially dubbed as 'grab a grannie night'. Not politically correct, but it was almost 20 years ago! All I remember from those nights were the laughs. People with experience of life, scars, wounds and successes, all coming together, having a laugh and a boogie, and maybe even falling in love under the disco lights. They were the most fun, and the most surprising customers we had through our doors. Love is love, and there should be no best before date stamped on that.
Happy gorgeous Grandma Day everyone!
Ruby Lang ~ A Big And Small Deal
One Small Slice:
In House Rules, my upcoming contemporary romance about a divorced couple forced to become roommates (out from Carina Press in February 2020), 40-something heroine Lana Kuo is cutting up some fruit while counseling her much younger cousin, Julia, through romantic heartache. Julia has Lana’s sympathies until the younger woman makes one statement:
"I'm fine. At least I'm not over 30 and alone."
Lana very carefully put down the knife she'd been using so that she didn't accidentally commit the terrible crime of infanticide.
Julia’s opinion that being above a certain age and without a romantic partner is something to be unhappy or even ashamed of is not uncommon. Indeed, given the sparse landscape of books featuring people in their 30s and older, this seems to be the tacit attitude of our genre, a genre that we also often say is “written for women, by women.”
I can’t say I’m enthusiastic about that particular way of describing romance.
It seems what we mean by “women,” is a very limited slice of womanhood; sometimes it looks like cishet, white, 20-somethings are almost (almost!) the only ones accounted for in our scramble to defend or uplift romance fiction. Our definition of who gets happiness, who deserves love, who can be attractive, and desirable, can appear very limited. So when people declare romance is “written for women, and by women,” I can’t bring myself to agree, because so many women seem to be regularly left out.
People like me.
In House Rules, and in my upcoming release Playing House (out from Carina in August, 2019) I chose quite deliberately to write about “seasoned” Asian-North American characters. In Playing House, Fay Liu and Oliver Huang are both in their late 30s. In House Rules, Lana Kuo is in her 40s, and so is her (non-Asian) hero. I made a conscious decision to try and write about heroines who are little like me, women whose parents may have immigrated from China or Taiwan but who themselves were born and raised in North America. People who are flawed and trying to figure out their place in the world. People who want to make connections.
These characters occupy part of my own small slice of humanity. I could see myself being friends with them. Many of my friends are, indeed, very much like them and want to see people like them reflected in the books they read.
Writing these characters, and finding a publishing home for these stories, has felt like both a big and a small deal. I know many of us are aware we need to be more inclusive. And I know my stories are not exactly revolutionary. I’m hardly the first person to write a romance featuring older characters of Asian descent finding love. For example, one of my favorite novellas ever, Suleikha Snyder’s wonderful, “A Taste of Blessings,” in her collection Dil or No Dil, features two Indian American acquaintances over the age of 35 reconsidering their relationship.
And the recent Netflix romantic comedy movie, “Always Be My Maybe,” features East Asian American characters in their 30s played by actors in their 30s and 40s. (Ali Wong is 37, Randall Park is 45, and Wong’s rejected suitors, Daniel Dae Kim and Keanu Reeves, are both in their 50s.) Their ages and their ethnicities are not the main message, but their identities woven into the why the stories unfold the way they do, and I really appreciate that.
Watching and reading these books and movies is wonderful and momentous but also extremely personal, in the way that falling in love itself is both earthshaking, and yet an entirely common occurrence. It’s, as I said, a big and a small deal.
But these stories are exceptions. They’re notable for how rare they are. And to be rare is honestly kind of lonely. What I really want is to be able to scrounge up more than a handful of titles and names. I want more to choose from. I want to make a thick blanket out of many of these stories and keep myself warm under it. Really frankly, although I love my characters very much, I want more that don’t come from my own head. I want to share in the experiences, and to know that there are more of us out there.
So here I am, the stuff of my young character Julia’s nightmares: I’m over thirty and not exactly alone as a reader and writer, but wishing for more company nonetheless. And I’m hoping that I can encourage more people to write about their own smaller segments of humanity. It may not seem like it, but there are people out there waiting for these stories.
“It’s never too late to fall in love.”
That’s the motto of the newly formed Aged to Perfection chapter of Romance Writers of America. The online chapter will be for writers, aspiring writers and readers of seasoned romance. Look for their buttons at this summer’s RWA conference in NYC if you’d like to learn more.
What is seasoned romance and why form a chapter dedicated to that particular story line? Loosely defined: seasoned romance is a romance of any genre (such as romantic suspense, contemporary, historical, paranormal, etc.) that features a hero and/or heroine in his or her 40s, 50s, 60s and beyond. Think characters reflected in movies and tv by such actors as Sam Elliott, Harrison Ford, George Clooney, Angela Bassett, Helen Mirren or Diane Keaton, starring in a romance that’s every bit as emotional / funny / poignant / exciting / sexy / inspiring as any other romance featuring the traditional 20-somethings and 30 year-olds. Once considered a niche market, romances featuring older characters is now a solidly growing market in the publishing industry.
One of the key draws to romance for readers is that they identify with the hero/ine. Either they see themselves in that main character, or they want to live the life and experience the adventure and emotions of that character. And now, as that audience—especially if that character finds love, adventure, romance, faces and overcomes obstacles—gains more life experience, they want stories which reflect that. My mom is 86 now, and she has told me more than once how she’d love to see a story featuring a heroine in her 80s. In the meantime, she’s particularly drawn to books in which there are supporting characters her age. And she and women her age don’t want any doddering old aunties who are there just for comic relief or to be taken care of—they want to see seasoned men and women living rich, full lives, making important contributions to their families, communities, and the storyline.
Some of my most popular supporting characters are the parents and grandparents of my heroes and heroines. I receive a lot of fan mail asking about Martha and Barbara, the matchmaking mothers from In the Blink of An Eye. Are they grandparents yet? Have they helped Mac & Jules solve any other crimes? Or more recently, the subplot romance between Grandpa Seamus Watson and housekeeper Millie Leighter in my The Precinct: Bachelors in Blue miniseries seems to be delighting readers.
Obviously, you don’t want superfluous characters just to meet some age quota, but look at the world around you and what people of all ages are accomplishing—that’s the world you want to create in your stories, too.
But my, how times have changed. When I wrote my first two seasoned romances—before there was a term for it—my editor asked me to take out any references to the characters’ ages. I left the clues to show the smart reader that these were mature characters—in Baby Jane Doe (2010), my heroine had two grown children and was the commissioner of police, a job that could only be earned by years of hard work. But any place where I mentioned she was 56 was edited out. There was no problem with her being older than my hero (My hero didn’t have a problem with it, either 😉. From their first meeting, he thought she was a hottie…until he realized she was his boss.), but I was told the number 56 would turn off younger readers. Publishers and indie authors alike walk a fine line between tapping into the booming young reader market and not alienating their aging core market of loyal, longtime readers. Sometimes, a character’s age or an age difference is part of the conflict, and it simply can’t be changed without changing the heart of the story—and the story you want to tell should be respected.
On the other hand, one of my bestselling books, that launched its own SWAT team miniseries, was Takedown, where the hero was 15 years older than the heroine. I found it interesting that my publisher had no problem with the hero’s age being mentioned, or the age gap between the two main characters. I wonder if that harkened back to the traditional romances of the 1950s and 60s between the guardian and his ward or the lord of the manor and his new young governess.
A decade later, I find myself writing another seasoned romance featuring two characters in their 50s. There seems to be a different attitude about it now. I haven’t been told to hide their ages. In fact, one of the aspects the marketing department is interested in pursuing is that these are two mature characters taking another shot at love. While my editor was hesitant at pushing my hero to 60, I was told to go for it. There’s just as much danger, action, steamy kisses and tender moments in this story as any other I’ve written, and I’m loving it.
Ideally, a well-written romance will appeal to readers across the board, despite the age of the characters. But it’s hard to deny that craving to see ourselves reflected in the stories we read, and that includes heroes and heroines with a few lines beside their eyes and some silver in his or her hair. I’m all for these veterans of life and love finding their happily-ever-afters.
Did you find love later in life or rediscover it the second time around? Do you like to read people your age falling in love or do you prefer youth escapism? Tell us in the comments or on social media using #NotDeadYet and #DiversityMatters