A Conversation With Lisa Kleypas

by Claire E. White

From shy bookworm to Miss America contestant and New York Times bestselling author; it
Photo of Lika Kleypas
sounds like a plot from a contemporary romance novel. But this is no fictional tale--it's the true story of popular romance novelist and former Miss Massachusetts, Lisa Kleypas. Always a hard worker, she wrote her first novel at the age of sixteen and was hooked on writing. After a successful career in beauty pageants, she turned her attention to her studies. After graduating from Wellesley College with a degree in political science, Lisa Kleypas decided to make her dream of writing full-time a reality. Her first book was sold to NAL just before graduation, and she never looked back. Her books include Only in Your Arms (Avon, 1995), Only With Your Love (Avon, 1992), Then Came You (Avon, 1993), Dreaming of You (Avon, 1994), Midnight Angel (Avon, 1995), Prince of Dreams (Avon, 1995), Somewhere I'll Find You, (Avon, 1996) and Because You're Mine (Avon, 1997). Her stories have also appeared in several anthologies, including Three Weddings and a Kiss (Avon, 1995) which also featured stories by Kathleen E. Woodiwiss and Loretta Chase. Her books have attracted legions of fans who eagerly await her next release. But this New York Times bestselling author hasn't let success go to her head; she remains funny and down to earth--even in the face of disaster, such as when her home was flooded in the recent torrential rains in south Texas. Married, she has one son: the light of her life, three year-old Griffin. Her most recent book is Stranger in My Arms (Avon, 1998), a passionate and fascinating historical romance based on the true French story about a woman whose husband is given up for dead when a man turns up claiming to be her husband. He looks the same, but is it really him?

Lisa spoke with us about the road she followed from shy teenager to bestselling author, the inspiration for her latest book, and gives some excellent advice for aspiring romance authors.

Where did you grow up?

I was born in Texas, but when I was just a year old, my family moved to Massachusetts. From the age of twelve to twenty-four, we lived in the Concord/Lexington area, with all that gorgeous colonial scenery and history. I lived down the street from Louisa May Alcott's house, and Paul Revere's copper mine.

When did you first know that you wanted to be a writer?

I always loved reading and creating stories, but there was a specific moment when I knew I would be a professional writer. After writing a heartfelt (but very bad) novel during the summer I was sixteen, my parents wanted to encourage me by sending me to a romance writers' conference in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire. I mingled with writers and editors, and I met Ellen Edwards, who was then working for Jove. Just being in that atmosphere, and seeing what people in the publishing industry were like, I had a deep inner certainty that I would be published someday, no matter how much time or work it might require.

When did you first start reading in the romance genre? Do you remember the first book you read?

I read The Flame And The Flower the year I was twelve, and I found it fascinating but a little mystifying. At a time when twelve-year-olds were still pretty innocent, I didn't completely understand the love scenes-I knew the facts of life, of course, but nothing about sensuality. However, I loved the notion that a man who was very fierce and powerful could be tamed by the love of a woman.

What led up to the publication of your first novel?

I wrote a complete romance novel every summer of my high school and college years, and although none of them were publishable, I learned a great deal about characterization and writing technique. As I was afraid of being criticized, I never took a creative writing class. Finally, when I was about to graduate from Wellesley with a political science degree, my father sat me down and wisely told me that I couldn't spend the rest of my life writing in my parents' basement, and I was going to have to get a bona fide job. Knowing I had three months left before graduation, I spent every spare hour between papers and exams writing a historical romance novel. A very flowery novel with the kind of forced seduction scenes that I would never write now-but of course, this was the eighties, and the genre was still developing (as I was). I sent the manuscript to an agent, and he called within a day or two, and shortly thereafter it was sold to NAL.

Tell us about competing in the Miss America Pageant. What was the atmosphere like? What did you learn from the experience?

For most of my teenage years I was a very shy, slightly plump bookworm. I did like to sing and participate in school plays,
"A writer can get caught up in the numbers part of publishing, and this distracts from your work. When I finally stopped worrying about numbers and deals, and concentrated on writing the best books I could, success seemed to come much more easily and quickly."
and this eventually led to trying out for the beauty pageant. I slimmed down, got contacts and a perm, and felt like a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis. Since I was competing with absolutely gorgeous, tall blond girls who entered the pageant year after year, I had absolutely no expectation of winning. For one thing, I'm only five-three (all right, a shade under), and my family had put all our money into education, not clothes. When I won the local pageant, I was wearing a sixty-five dollar gown, whereas many of the other girls had custom- made gowns that literally cost thousands. To my surprise as well as everyone else's, I went on to win the Miss Massachusetts crown, and had a wonderful time competing in Atlantic city. Now, this sounds contradictory, but the pageant had two effects on me: it gave me a sense of being sexy and attractive, but it also made me extremely self-conscious about my appearance. For a couple of years afterward, I had to keep reminding myself that it was all right to leave the house if I was a few pounds heavier or my skin had broken out. Being in the pageant almost makes you feel obligated to look perfect all the time. On the other hand, the experience of public speaking, poise training, etc, gave me some polish I badly needed. I have no regrets about the experience, and I would do it again . . . but I'm not so sure I would want a daughter to go through it unless we talked about it a great deal beforehand, and I made her understand what she was getting into!

Did your career in beauty pageants have an effect on your writing?

Yes . . . it provoked a great deal of thought about the issue of one's physical appearance vs. one's inner self, and I think it influenced my characterizations tremendously. I seldom, if ever, write about physically perfect heroines-they are always short, or plump, or too thin, or small-breasted, or there is some uncertainty that makes them less than 100 percent confident. After all, that's how we real women are-I don't have a single friend who thinks her thighs are perfect, or who loves her hair whether straight or curly. And I can't stand the romance novels that feature women who possess goddess-like beauty. Except for Judith Ivory's Beast, in which she does the most wonderful exploration of the personal pitfalls and growth of a stunningly beautiful girl.

What is your writing routine? (Do you write everyday, with music, with special surroundings, on a computer etc.)

I used to be so disciplined (wistful sigh). Then I had a baby, and although he is the best thing that ever happened to me, the time to write has become very precious and difficult to find. Right now I am trying out a schedule of waking up at five, writing till nine, and then writing another couple of hours during his nap time in the afternoon. I had an amazing computer set-up until my house was flooded recently, and now I'm back to a laptop for a while. No music or videos unless I am really desperate for inspiration. The only thing that really creates great writing is the constant butt-in-the-chair routine every day.

I'd like to talk about your latest book, Stranger in my Arms. What was your inspiration for the story?

I had read the translation of original French medieval court documents regarding the case of Martin Guerre, the man who
Cover of
Stranger in My Arms by Lisa Kleypas
abandoned his wife for several years and then "returned" later in the form of a lookalike stranger. Naturally, I loved the concept of strangers brought into instant intimacy--it's what I like about other, similar romance plots such as arranged marriages, or daughters sold to pay off gambling debts, etc. I rented both videos of "Martin Guerre" movies, the Gerard Depardieu version and the "Sommersby" one. However, neither was very satisfying to me. Obviously the story was in need of a happy ending, but I also wanted a deeper exploration of why the abandoned wife doesn't reveal this stranger who has come into her life. And I wanted the stranger to invade her life because of her, because of his need for love and belonging, instead of the mercenary desire for material possessions and family fortune. In the effort to make the story my own, I used a new place and setting, created new minor characters and subplots, and added elements that force the hero into greater personal growth. He is constantly urged by the heroine to look after others' needs as well as his own, until he finally, naturally, inhabits the heroic role he has created for himself.

What was the most challenging part of writing this story?

There were two challenges--the first being the question of how much to reveal about the hero. I think it is fairly obvious from early on in the story that he is not the original husband. The drama and mystery come from the his motivations for having taken the real Hawksworth's place. I wanted the new Hawksworth to be accessible without sacrificing the mystery and the touch of darkness that make him intriguing. The second challenge came from the fact that I was having a few personal problems that kept distracting me from work. The other times in my life that this has happened, such as when I was pregnant and had terrible morning sickness for months, I felt that the novel I happened to be working on turned out a little weaker than the usual ones. I have high standards for romance novels, my own and everyone else's, and two things that must never be sacrificed are sensuality and sparkle. When I say "sparkle", I don't necessarily mean humor--I'm referring to that wonderful excitement of an inspired story . . . that indefinable something that causes you to announce to your husband that there will be no dinner this evening, and don't bother me for the next three hours while I read. So while I was having this difficult year, I didn't want "Stranger" to suffer ... and somehow, I was able to find a way to use my problems in a positive way. I escaped to my fantasy world each day and used my writing to work through an adverse situation, and I think it may have even turned out better than if my life had been picture-perfect.

The heroine of the tale is Lara, a complex character faced with a very serious dilemma. How did you create Lara?

Well, Lara is not an easily understandable character, because of her ambivalence. Being a highly moral woman, she is not able to instantly accept her powerful attraction to the stranger who has come into her life. She is also the product of her times, and therefore is not straightforward about her feelings for him. However, she is a loving and warm-spirited person, and rather than addressing her own longings and needs, she spends her time doing things for other people. I think the only way to make it believable that she would keep her silence about her suspicions regarding her long lost "husband" is to show that she is deeply in need of the loving attention he provides. Therefore, she is willing to deceive herself as well as everyone else, just to have him in her life for as long as possible.

The hero in the story is the dashing and somewhat enigmatic Lord Hawksworth. Was he a difficult character to write?

The trick to Hawksworth was to somehow make him sympathetic.
"[R]omance demands a certain courage. Writing a love poem that someone might laugh at...expressing feelings in music...giving someone a gift you made yourself...these things make one feel horribly vulnerable, and therefore they are acts of true romance."
After all, it is a horrible thing to take over someone else's life and deceive everyone around him. I had to show that in spite of "Hawksworth's" ruthless actions, at his core he longs to be needed, and this is the first real opportunity in his life to give and receive love. I also wanted to make the ironic point that in spite of their very different upbringings, the impostor is actually better suited to the requirements of being a good husband, father, employer, and responsible member of the community than the real Hawksworth. He is capable of great and passionate love. There is a speech near end of novel when the stranger declares he would kill, steal, become anyone or anything, just for the opportunity to be with the heroine for a little while. I think every woman fantasizes about being loved with this kind of intensity.

You are known for your wonderful characterization and your sizzling love scenes. How do you approach writing love scenes?

Thank you! I have been surprised and gratified in the last couple of years that the love scenes have been remarked on,
Cover of
Because You're Mine by Lisa Kleypas
especially since I have made a point never to use foul language or "bed-hopping" characters, and I am even reluctant to use euphemisms for body parts. I believe what makes a love scene really sizzle is to always remind the reader of the emotional context of the scene . . . what has led to this act, and how it will change their relationship from now on, and why making love with this one person is different from doing it with someone else. Scenes where the writer does little but describe perfect bodies interacting with each other leave me cold. So many times, I have read or heard of romance novels being either the "romantic" kind or the "hot" kind, when to me the perfect romance is a mixture of both. Loretta Chase did this beautifully in Lord Of Scoundrels, or Laura Kinsale's Flowers From the Storm.

In romances, especially historical romances, there is often a "forced seduction" scene. How do you feel about forced seduction scenes and their place in romances?

My first novel contained a forced seduction scene, and it made me so uncomfortable that I had the hero being sorry and apologizing for the entire rest of the book. I have never done one since. Elements of conflict and challenge are just fine for a love scene, but whether I'm reading or writing one, I always have to believe completely that a hero would instantly stop if a woman refused him. It's hard to explain where I draw the line, except to say that I know brutality when I read it. Now I might sound wishy-washy when I sincerely add that this is fantasy fiction, and therefore a hero's forceful (but never cruel) behavior is often done in a way that makes it perfectly acceptable to me. And I don't buy any arguments that romance readers might be wrongly influenced by these scenes--these women are certainly able to separate reality from fantasy.

What makes a great hero in a historical romance?

My preferences are for a masculine man who is able to express himself well but never speaks in flowery prose. He possesses innate strength of character and is self-made or has risen above difficult circumstances. Eventually he loves the heroine with a Heathcliff-level of intensity, and demonstrates this both verbally and physically. And this is the most important quality to me : I have to feel that the heroine will be able to develop and improve as a person because of his presence in her life. In other words, he and she will encourage each other to achieve individual goals. I've read too many romances in which the "happy" ending means the heroine ends up as an extension of the hero and will likely spend the rest of her life doing nothing more than pleasing him sexually and bearing him several children.

What do you find to be the most difficult aspect of writing a historical romance?

I spend the most time and effort in working on dialogue. The language of the characters must be sufficiently elegant and rich to give it a historical feel, but it must also be clean and natural enough to keep from interfering with the "flow" of the story. And I try to weed out anachronistic words or phrases, which jar so terribly.

Do you think our modern society, in general, is lacking in romance compared to past time periods?

Not at all! The ease, comfort and luxury of modern times
Cover of
Midnight Angel by Lisa Kleypas
makes real-life romance and romantic gestures much easier, if one only wants to make the effort. The problem we have nowadays is cynicism. We all use it like a shield to keep from appearing naive or foolish, or out of the fear that someone might take advantage. I think as a society we might have a little less emotional courage than in past times . . . we are so concerned about appearing sophisticated and smart that we are unwilling to be vulnerable. And romance demands a certain courage. Writing a love poem that someone might laugh at . . .expressing feelings in music . . . giving someone a gift you made yourself . . . these things make one feel horribly vulnerable, and therefore they are acts of true romance.

What other genres do you like to read besides romance?

I adore biographies of both historical and contemporary figures. Love an occasional mystery or thriller, sci fi or fantasy if a particular book comes highly recommended. It is so important to read a variety of genres-helps to make you a little more well-rounded.

What is your advice to the aspiring romance writer?

Persistence is key . . . if you have the drive to keep writing, you're going to continue to improve. I did not begin with
Cover of
Then Came You by Lisa Kleypas
a great deal of natural talent in this area. What I did have was the enjoyment of the work itself, and a certain ability to analyze my own writing and see what it lacked. The more I wrote, the better I got. . . so keep at it! Another important thing to remember is your goal-which is not to get published, but to write a wonderful novel. Don't ever think in terms of what "the market" wants. Write a book filled with the most passionate and entertaining ideas you can come up with, and someone will buy it. (Just don't set it in Russia--I wrote two perfectly nice, wonderfully researched books with thrillingly romantic heroes, but the Russian settings and characters just killed them.) And then after you're published, try not to think too much about business and sales figures-does this sound strange? A writer can get caught up in the numbers part of publishing, and this distracts from your work. I am not being naive. When I finally stopped worrying about numbers and deals, and concentrated on writing the best books I could, success seemed to come much more easily and quickly. A controversial belief of mine . . . self-promotion is certainly not harmful, but it will never help you to sell books as much as word of mouth. And it is potentially very expensive, so I would advise spending your time on the writing. I've tried some self-promotion in the past, and without vanity I can say that I'm really great at it . . . but it didn't help sales nearly as much as simply concentrating on making the books good.

How important do you believe writing or critique groups are for aspiring writers?

Anything that is positive and makes you want to write, go for it! Anything that makes you feel depressed, competitive or anxious, avoid it like the plague.

What are your pet peeves in life?

I think people are hardly ever courteous enough to each other. Life would be so much more pleasant for all of us if we praticed a little more consideration of others. I can't stand unkindness, and I see it so often . . . it just makes me cringe. Other pet peeves . . . people who don't use their blinkers while driving. . . .hair stylists that cut my bangs too short and give me that "Hamlet" look . . .pants that keep shrinking lengthwise every time you wash them. When I can't get Equal for my coffee and have to settle for a packet of the bitter "pink stuff". Parents who tell me their child started sleeping through the night two weeks after coming home from the hospital. Oh, and the way the volume level goes so much higher during commercials than it is on the main program.

What are your favorite ways to relax when you're not working?

I play the guitar, read, cook (especially elaborate desserts), and most of all I spend time with my three-year old son Griffin.

What projects are you working on now?

I've just gotten approval for an outline about a man who hires a matchmaker to help him marry well.

What's on your Christmas Wish List for this year?

Truly, my son gives me so much joy, I don't need anything. His delight in life and the way he makes me laugh, and those wonderful sloppy toddler good-morning kisses . . . I just wish it could go on forever.

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