A Conversation With Evelyn Rogers

by Claire E. White

Bestselling romance novelist Evelyn Rogers
Photo of Evelyn Rogers
is a native southerner, born in Alabama and raised in Texas. She began her writing career immediately after college, covering criminal trials and county government shenanigans for a crusading West Texas newspaper. It was an assignment as far from romance as a writing job could be.

The gritty world of journalism was not for her, and she went on to the equally challenging profession of teaching, devoting twenty-five years as English teacher and librarian to various middle schools in Texas. During the last eight years of her education career, intrigued by the world of the romance novel, she began a collaboration that lasted through two unpublished contemporaries and five published historicals. She and Kathryn Davenport combined their maiden names to write as Keller Graves. They began writing in 1983, sold in 1985, and in 1987, their novel Brazen Embrace began the Zebra Heartfire line.

In 1989 Evelyn struck out on her own with the publication of Midnight Sins. A year later, she retired from teaching to write full time. She published sixteen books with Zebra, before moving to Leisure/Love Spell in 1996. Her first book for Leisure was Wicked, which was followed by numerous other books, including the popular Texas Empire Series (Crown of Glory, Lone Star, and Longhorn), and The Loner.

Known for her bestselling historical western romances, Evelyn was asked by Leisure to help launch its new Gothic Romance imprint, Candleglow. Devil in the Dark was her first Gothic, which met with rave reviews. Her second Gothic has just been released, entitled The Grotto. Set in Tuscany, The Grotto has all of the elements of a classic Gothic romance: a dark, sensual atmosphere, a beautiful heroine and a dark, mysterious hero. But the award-winning author imparts her own style on this time-honored genre, giving it a fresh, modern appeal. Although the heroine, Caterina, was abused by her late husband, she is no shrinking violet. And when times get tough, she rolls up her sleeves and gets to work -- much like Evelyn has done all her life.

Although at first she was shy about speaking in public, she has become quite adept at it, and has spoken at national and regional conferences on writing. Known for her great sense of humor, sensual writing and skill with dialogue and plot, this award-winning author has fans in many subgenres: contemporary, historical, time travel, and now Gothic.

A firm believer in romance, Evelyn has been married to her true love, Jay, for forty-five years; they live in Texas, and have two grown children and four grandsons. (She says the chances of a granddaughter are looking a bit bleak.) A retired newspaperman, Jay helps her in her research. Evelyn and Jay love to travel, and have visited Italy, England, Scotland, Ireland, Spain, Turkey, and France so far. When she's not writing, you might find Evelyn spending time with her family, reading, listening to opera, or planning her next trip. She spoke with us about her career change from teacher to bestselling novelist and her latest book, The Grotto. She also gives some great tips for aspiring authors, and lets us in on her secrets for a happy marriage.

What did you like to read when you were growing up?

Anything and everything, from Elsie Dinsmore to the Bobbsey twins and Nancy Drew (each mystery read six times), then on to teen romances by Janet Lambert. Anne of Green Gables and Green Mansions were favorites. I was one of those strange people who liked the books assigned in class, especially Silas Marner. After discovering Agatha Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, I was hooked on mysteries. (I would love to hear from anyone who remembers the story of the poor little rich girl Elsie Dinsmore. No one but me has ever heard of the book.)

How did you get your start as a journalist?

Cover of Lone Star (Texas Empires) by Evelyn Rogers
A high school journalism class got me hooked on journalism. I ended up with a double major in college, English and journalism, married a fellow journalism student, and began my brief career as a crime and courthouse reporter for the Odessa American, a Freedom Newspaper owned by a Californian so conservative he did not believe in public schools. This stint was one of the more difficult times of my life. The American was a crusading newspaper. I was supposed to dig up the dirt, which was certainly there. Years after I went on to other things, several of the public officials with whom I dealt were indicted for various offenses. I did all right -- the publisher did not want me to quit and go into teaching -- but I've got internal scars from those long-ago days. In the fifties a young woman right out of college really had to push when dealing with the courthouse "good old boys," especially the West Texas variety.

What prompted your decision to move into teaching?

I had taken education courses in college, mostly at my mother's request so I could "always get a job". I had a feeling teaching was for me, and it proved to be so. The local school district did not want to hire me, thinking I was coming in as a spy for the newspaper, but I convinced them that was not the case. I knew from the first day it was the field for me.

What age groups did you teach? What did you enjoy most about teaching?

I spent 25 years in middle school, as an English teacher and later librarian. I figured those years toughened me for the New York publishing scene. What I loved most was the interaction with children and watching the process of learning. It was especially gratifying to see a student get hooked on books.

How have your careers as a journalist and a teacher affected your writing style as a novelist?

I'd like to think I have a clean style of writing as a legacy
"Read within the genre that appeals to you, analyze the parts you especially like (ask How does the writer do that?), get with other writers and talk books, and then sit down in private and write, write, write. If you are truly driven, don't quit when the rejections come. Analyze them, too."
from journalism. By clean, I mean focused on the characters and purpose of each scene, with not a lot of extraneous matter thrown in. Teaching, however, gave me the most help. I taught characterization, plot development, mood, tone, irony, dialogue -- all the tools a writer needs to tell a story. I've always said if you want to know a subject, teach it. You can't get in front of a class of 13-year-olds and wing anything. Thus I began my belated writing career grounded in what it takes to put a book together. Selling one to an editor, however, was another story. (I also taught that writing is a form of self discovery. I found this to be true when I uncovered a strong romantic streak in me I had never before identified.)

Please tell us about your road to publication for your first novel.

I began collaborating with Kathryn Davenport, a long-time friend and fellow teacher (we actually met in journalism school at North Texas). Both had empty nests, read about a San Antonio teacher, Emma Merritt, who sold seven books to Dell Candlelight Ecstasy, and was apparently raking in the dough. We can do that, we told ourselves, never having read a romance, never having written more than letters or term papers. We went on to find out that, of course, we couldn't. We read books on writing, went to conferences, joined writers' groups, read and analyzed books in the romance genre. This was in 1983, a booming time for romance.

We started with contemporaries, but decided by the third unsold book and many rejections that perhaps we ought to look to history since we were getting a little weary of our own story. My buddy was a history nut, I was a librarian with ample research material available. We came up with a proposal, but wanted to package the thing right. A little tight with money, I got an 800 number for Wendy McCurdy, then an editor at Zebra, made a list of 20 yes/no questions about the submission, and placed the very important call. In my ignorance I expected to go through receptionists, secretaries, whatever before I could ever get close to an editor, a position I did and still do consider close to deified. In five seconds she was on the phone. It was lesson number one: editors are accessible if you hit it lucky. She agreed to answer my questions, did so brusquely with an occasional elaboration, and I thought we were not connecting, bonding, whatever the current term is. Then at the last she said the magic words: "Put my name on the envelope." That meant we could write "Solicited Manuscript" on the outside, thus avoiding the slush pile where our contemporaries had gone.

We sent a synopsis, prologue, and four chapters, then, skeptical after our earlier rejections, went off to England to celebrate by buddy's retirement from teaching. At morning at our bed and breakfast dining room, the proprietor brought us a telegram from my husband saying we had a bite.

Immediately after returning home, we called Wendy, who suggested we start with chapter four and resubmit, giving us ideas about the way we should go. Our reaction was to call upon fellow writers, including Emma, Martha Hix, and Karla Hocker, and set up a critique group. Thanks to their help, we re-submitted, got "The Call", and were on our way. We sold in 1985 and were published in 1987, under the name Keller Graves, a combination of our maiden names. We went on to sell five historicals under that name before deciding to write separately. She wrote two on her own, then retired. I, obviously, kept plugging on.

We decided to personally deliver the first manuscript for what was eventually called Brazen Embrace, along with a proposal for a sequel. Wendy took us to lunch and we asked her why she bought the book. Her answer has stayed in my memory: "I never buy an unfinished manuscript from an unpublished writer, but you listened to what I said. Do you know how few people listen?"

We answered that being teachers, yes, we did know.

Cover of The Loner by Evelyn Rogers
You are so well-known for your Western romances, such as the Texas Empires series and, most recently, The Loner. What initially drew you to writing about the Old West?

I can't say living in Texas was the initial draw. I am a city girl. But we had tons of research material available and could visit the actual settings. Besides, Texas is a place of mythic proportions. We would have been fools not to play on some of those myths. We also liked reading Westerns, especially Elmer Kelton. The setting was comfortable, for these reasons and others I can't put into words. Some things you just know are right.

Let's talk Gothics. Most publishers had all but abandoned their Gothic romance lines, citing a lack of reader interest. Yet, in January, 2001 Dorchester launched its new Candleglow line with your book, Devil in the Dark, as one of the launch titles. Why do you think the Gothic subgenre is making such a resurgence with readers?

When I was searching for a different kind of book to write, feeling a little burnt-out on cowboys and ranches, I looked to the movies. The Sixth Sense was popular, along with several other films with a dark theme. I decided the time had come for dark romance, and since I had a long-time love affair with Gothics, beginning with the Brontes, the incredible book Rebecca, and the works of Mary Stewart, I decided to try a Gothic.

My wonderful agent Evan Marshall and equally wonderful editor Alicia Condon encouraged me to give the sub-genre a try. I did and got hooked.

I'd like to talk about your latest release, the Gothic romance The Grotto. What was your inspiration for this story?

Visits to Italy, especially Tuscany, taught me to love the country. I had long wanted to write a book set there but feared it wouldn't sell. That was before I started my first Gothic. I am most comfortable with American heroines and decided an American contessa caught in tragic circumstances might work. I guess you could call that an inspiration. In each book, after I focus on the hero or heroine or both, what I do is sit down and start figuring out what problems to throw at them. You could say work inspires me.

Writing Gothics today presents some real challenges: there are certain conventions to be followed, yet you have to appeal to a fairly sophisticated reader. Let's start with the atmosphere and the setting. What made you choose Tuscany?

Cover of The Grotto by Evelyn Rogers
Well, as I mentioned, I love it. Besides, it is an area familiar to many readers. And it's got vineyards, ancient curses, hilltop villas, class struggles, passionate people. What's not to like?

The heroine of the story is the Contessa Caterina Donati, an American who married into the Italian aristocracy, with tragic results. How did you create Caterina?

I purposefully made Caterina a put-upon daughter and wife, dictated to by men, left by those same men in a situation that threatens her survival. She's in a foreign country as different from her native Boston as a place can be. She can either curl up and die or fight back. I like an oppressed heroine who puts up a valiant struggle against fate, overcoming her own weakness, and yes, especially, conquering the men who oppress her.

But she has to be loving and vulnerable. I find enjoyment in creating such contrasts. Above all else, the reader has to like the heroine, and so do I.

The hero of the story is Roberto Vela. Did he present any special challenges for you? It seems like in a Gothic there always has to be that mystery about the hero, which is hard to pull off without making him look unappealing. Yet with Roberto, we always get a glimpse of his sense of humor or compassion which keeps him interesting until we learn his identity.

Roberto was the key to the whole book. I think the hero always is. Since I've limited myself to the traditional one-point-of view, the point of view being the heroine's, I couldn't go into his mind. And boy, does he have a mind. He's got an agenda, as we now say, but it's one the reader can't know about until the climax of the book. That presents problems over which I agonized. Every word, every look, every act of his had to be carefully nuanced, so that should the reader choose to re-read the book, she/he will see that I never lied, never misrepresented. But yes, I did hold back a fact or two.

You mention his humor and compassion. I'm thrilled you noticed. The only way I know to get such traits across is through his actions. The hero throws himself in the path of danger to save the heroine, at best when he's about to achieve a not-so-noble goal. Or he sees irony in a situation that hints he is not all gloomy threats.

As you may gather, Gothics are not easy to write, at least for me.

Let's talk about love scenes. Do you find them easy or hard to write? Are there any pet peeves you have about love scenes in romance novels?

They are always difficult because they must reflect the situation, the attitude, the feelings of the hero and heroine at the particular time of the scene. That means the first love scene will be far different from any others that might follow. And I do grow weary of coming up with original descriptions of an act everyone already knows very well.

Two pet peeves about love scenes: one, gratuitous ones thrown in for titillation (I'm not above titillation, understand, I just think it has to fit into the story), and two, the way some characters do not change in their attitude to one another after they have had carnal knowledge of one another (is that delicately put enough?).

The Grotto manages to sustain a high level of suspense and mystery throughout the story. When you start a new book, how much of the plot do you know in advance? Do you use outlines or character bios?

"I know the cliché is that opposites attract, but I don't believe it. ... I can't imagine being married to a man who couldn't go to the library and pick out books he knows I will like. Or a man who doesn't understand when I have to write. Or when I get cranky if things aren't going right."
I know the beginning, I have the climax worked out, and I try to work out at least two plot twists within the development of the story. But how the characters get from Point A to Point B and onward, I let come to me as I write the scenes.

What I do know, however, is the nature of the protagonists. The first thing I do in developing a story is create a character file, which includes the name, age, physical description, background, current situation, and psychological traits of not only the hero and heroine, but also the secondary characters who will be important to the story. I keep adding to the file, occasionally changing or elaborating on details, and refer to it throughout the writing.

If nothing else, such a file keeps me from naming everyone with the same first initial: Margaret, Matthew, Mike, etc. Such similarities in names always confuses me in other books.

How do you approach the research needed for the historical novels?

I have a vast personal library, to which I keep adding. When I'm traveling to a foreign country or within the U.S., I always look for books, pamphlets, brochures, whatever will help me should I choose to set a book there.

Also, I have a secret research weapon: my husband, a retired newspaperman. He does the Internet research, which has included Tuscan wines and the cost of Persian carpets, among a hundred other topics.

What is your advice to aspiring romance authors?

It's pretty simple, yet hard at the same time. Read within the genre that appeals to you, analyze the parts you especially like (ask How does the writer do that?), get with other writers and talk books, and then sit down in private and write, write, write. If you are truly driven, don't quit when the rejections come. Analyze them, too. If it's in your nature to do so, form a critique group with people whose opinions you value. Don't be shy. Submit your work for others to read. That means participating in contests. You'll get a few blisters, but they form calluses you will need in this supposedly hearts-and-flowers world.

How helpful are critique groups and/or writer's conferences?

For me they have been extremely valuable. I can still hear the voices of my long-ago critique group buddies chastising me for inconsistency, lack of transition, unclear motivation. It's the last that troubles new writers the most.

Take us through a typical writing day for you.

I'm different, but then every writer thinks the same thing. I get up early, read the paper in bed, exercise (sometimes, if I'm being very, very good), take care of business, including email, and eventually get around to editing what I wrote the day before. This takes up the morning. After lunch, I frequently take a nap. Then comes the pouring-it-on time. I am at my most prolific in the afternoon. Maybe it's the power nap. Maybe it's the thought that if I don't write, I'll have to cook. (The above mentioned researcher husband also takes care of meals.)

Can you give us a sneak peek at your next project?

Most definitely. The Ghost of Carnal Cove is another Gothic, this one a ghost story set on the Isle of Wight, off the southern coast of England. (I visited the island last fall and fell in love with it.) The heroine Makenna Lindsay, spurned by the man she loves, finds a deed to an island cottage in her late mother's papers and goes there to mend her broken heart. Settling in the cottage overlooking a small inlet known as Carnal Cove, she wants isolation and peace. She gets a dark and arrogant sea captain Nicholas Saintjohn, who is living in the nearby cliff-top mansion, seeking escape for terrible reasons of his own, and a silver-haired, white-robed ghost who walks at the water's edge on moonlit nights, calling to Makenna to join her in what could very well be the heroine's doom.

There are enough secrets in this one to fill a couple of books.

As a former teacher and a grandmother, are you concerned about the amount of violence shown in video games, television and films? How has the electronic revolution affected the children of today?

I am most definitely concerned, especially where video games are concerned. Every one has violence of some kind at its core. Children love them. No, they become obsessed with them. Everything is graphic. Little imagination is stirred. Except for the dubious trait of teaching computer skills, what's good about them? They suck up time, they stir antagonism, they separate children from other children. I can't see anything of benefit to them that can't be found by other means.

Cover of Devil in the Dark by Evelyn Rogers
As for television and films for children, I'm not quite so rabid. As long as viewing is monitored by caring adults. As for the adults themselves, have you ever sat in a movie theatre and watched audience reaction to blood and gore? Most people laugh. Throwback that I am, I shudder at the laughter. And I do get rabid when I see parents bring in small children to such films. As far as I'm concerned, it's a form of abuse.

Give me a romantic comedy anytime. The problem is they are few and far between. Now if Hollywood would make movies of Golden Man and Second Opinion, my two contemporaries, the situation would be a great deal better. (Tongue sort of in cheek.)

What does your family think about your career as a romance novelist? Do they read or critique your work?

I could not ask for a more supportive family. On occasion I mutter about quitting and they are truly shocked I would consider such a thing. My daughter and daughter-in-law occasionally actually read one of my books. What they do best is understand when I have to isolate myself and work. They have been known to order me to do so. My husband is my final reader and critic. I value his opinion. He understands the written word.

You are a rarity in today's society; you've been happily married for 45 years to the same man. How did you meet your husband? What do you think makes a successful marriage?

We met in college and married after graduation. I know the cliché is that opposites attract, but I don't believe it. We have much in common, especially our love of books, travel, and most important, family. We did from the beginning. I can't imagine being married to a man who couldn't go to the library and pick out books he knows I will like. Or a man who doesn't understand when I have to write. Or when I get cranky if things aren't going right.

My husband knows when to offer help and when to get out of the way. As far as his own interests go, I know the same. I guess that sums up my formula for a successful marriage. It almost reads like a bumper sticker.

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