A Conversation With Rowena Cherry

by Claire E. White

Debut romance novelist Rowena Cherry,
Photo of Rowena Cherry
grew up on the island of Guernsey in Great Britain. Rowena describes the island as having "a mystical, idyllic setting with its prehistoric earth-goddess statues, Tudor Martello towers, underground gun emplacements, and legends of faery men." A school chess champion and winner of the Duke of Edinburgh's Gold Award, Rowena attended Cambridge University and was awarded a four-year combined honors degree in English and Education. She took a position in Dorset teaching at an exclusive boarding school, and spent her summer vacations in a friend's castle folly near Marbella, Spain.

She later moved to London where she met her auto designer husband who she describes as the lover of her life. As a corporate wife, she lived in Germany and traveled the world in luxury, which she calls "fantastic inspiration for romance novel scenes and alien-world building." When her husband was reassigned to America, they moved to Michigan. Rowena had always nurtured a love of writing, and at the urgings of one of her husband's business acquaintances, she decided to write a novel. She began entering writing contests, winning a large number of them. A story she had been working on for a number of years had both science fiction and romantic elements so she wasn't quite sure which genre she was writing in.

In 1997 she entered the Chesapeake Romance Writers of America Chapter's Last Line contest. Her last line was awarded "Most Poignant Last Line." She notes, "I wasn't about to change an award winning last line, so that settled it. Forced Mate was a romance." A finalist in the Romantic Times and Dorchester's New Voice in Romance Contest, Rowena landed a book contract. Her futuristic romance novel, Forced Mate, debuted to rave reviews. Based on her love of science, science fiction and chess, Forced Mate is a sweeping and witty intergalactic tale of royal romance which takes the Regency novel idea of the King who must find a bride quickly and gives it a novel twist. The term "forced mate" is a chess term, borrowed from one of the great Pandolfini's classic endgames. It refers to the situation where the board is reduced to the two Kings and a few pawns. The first King to make a Queen of his Pawn is the winner. In the book, two Djinn princes are at war for both a Queen and an Empire. But Forced Mate is more than a futuristic romance, it's also an extremely original, funny, witty comedy of manners.

Rowena now lives in Michigan with her husband and six year old daughter. When she's not working, you might find her driving carpool, teaching chess to gifted children, drawing or pursuing exotic lines of research. Rowena spoke to us about her road to publication and her inspiration for Forced Mate. She also gives some great insights for aspiring romance authors, and explains why she always sketches her love scenes before writing them.

What role did books play in your childhood? What authors or books really spoke to you?

Books have always fascinated me. I can't recall what my bedtime was when I was ten, but I have vivid memories of reading in bed as long as the English midsummer daylight lasted, and of the proverbial flashlight -- except I called it a torch -- under the sheets in winter.

I remember reading Treasure Island and Waggon Train when I was eight and we took our annual seaside holidays near Trevose Head in Cornwall, in a rental on the cliffs, which smelled of dampness, sand, salty-wet bathing costumes and the turpentine we used to scrub sticky beach tar off our feet.

There was something about the gun toting, horse riding, overtly macho scout-McCullough-that stirred my juvenile fantasies.

When I was thirteen my mother shared a Georgette Heyer Regency romance with me: These Old Shades. I never looked at another cowboy. From then on, my fantasy heroes were intelligent, older, and subtly dangerous. Perhaps I'm moving beyond my childhood, but as a teenager (at the Ladies College Guernsey) I studied English literature for my Advanced Levels, also Greek Literature in translation.

What authors or books really spoke to you?

At Cambridge University, I read English and Education, and took the impossibly long, suggested reading lists seriously. Nevertheless, I made time to read J.R.R. Tolkein's Lord of the Rings, and quite a lot of Asimov's stories. I liked Shakespeare's Histories -- particularly Anthony and Cleopatra -- and the Romance period was my favorite for the novels. Of the Romance poets Tennyson and Browning probably influenced me. The villain in my short story "Mating Net" owes a lot to the dark monologue in Browning's My Last Duchess. Of the Moderns, George Orwell's essays influenced my writing on a less obvious level... About writing responsibly, the ethics of authorship, and the importance of research. Orwell inspired me to apply the surgeons' code "First, Do No Harm," to my approach to writing. Stretching a point, I'd include songwriters as authors. The late sixties and seventies were a time of Metaphysical Rock, and I still love that music. Looking back, I'd call a lot of it Sci-Fi-romance rock.

What was the first fiction you ever wrote? What reaction did it receive?

When I was seven or eight, I used to write vaguely sexually coercive poetry, sew it into little books and give it to a (female) second cousin. Also petits histoires in French which I inflicted upon my French teacher. I cannot remember why.

That probably doesn't count as fiction! My first serious attempt at a novel was Forced Mate.

Was there anyone in your life who particularly supported you or inspired you to write fiction?

Imagine me grinning. I'll take "In My Life" in the platonic sense, because there is one acquaintance -- a very good friend of my husband's -- who did encourage me to take my dreams seriously. He is a major publisher of automotive magazines, and after receiving one or two of my Christmas letters -- which tended to be sagas -- he told me that I ought to write professionally.

Let's talk about Forced Mate. What was your inspiration for this story?

Cover of Forced Mate by Rowena Cherry
There was no one idea or one single inspiration. I had a primeval stew of ideas in the back of my mind and some catalyst twisted them into "life." I remember wondering what Darth Vader would be like in bed. There was a recurring dream inspired by something I'd read in my childhood where a dark character named either Number One or Numeral One hunts the hidden heroine. I thought it would be cool to portray a romance as a chess game, and perhaps have every chapter subtitled after a chess move or piece or position. The title, Forced Mate, is taken from Pandolfini's end-game position where there are the two Kings and a few pawns. The first King to make a pawn his Queen wins. It seemed appropriate.

What kind of research did you do for Forced Mate?

I did extensive research. Some was hands-on, some was a matter of poring over books, some involved talking to interesting people, some of it came from personal experience. For instance 1993 was a stand out year at the Indianapolis 500 ball because the Beauty Queen was led out in a dance by Fabio. My hosts at the Indy events that weekend told me that this was unusual; that normally the Beauty Queen danced with an elderly dignitary who was more intimately connected with the Indy 500 organization.

Around the same time, a friend in the motoring press also taught me a wonderfully humiliating expression: a Nostril Shot. That is when some body part -- usually one's least attractive facial feature -- appears in a photograph of someone famous. Put Nostril Shots and Fabio at the Indy 500 ball together, ask What If.... And the heroine of Forced Mate makes a life-changing, nostril-shot-type mistake… by attending the 1993 Indianapolis 500 Ball, and being accidentally photographed as Fabio danced with the Beauty Queen. If anyone ever wondered why Forced Mate begins on March 31st 1994 -- nearly a year later -- that is the reason.

Much of my research involved talking to really, really interesting people, such as the two lady black belts who choreographed all my fight scenes, or the amateur pilot who worked out how my heroic villain might fly undetected from Cambridge to Las Vegas in plane big enough to carry a limousine. (Not used. Yet.) Or the clairvoyant I hired for an afternoon to tell me how a charlatan might fake it. Or the genuine psychic who confided what sex is like for a mindreader.

I dare say some of the uncommon knowledge with which I spice my novels is apocryphal: urban legend.

For instance, if a mysterious stranger tells me that English mercenaries drive London taxi cabs when there is nothing more exciting to do, and which situations vacant columns they study, I've no idea how I'd safely verify whether my source was accurate or pulling my leg.

Other "research" was a question of recycling personal knowledge. My mother has always kept cats, so a cat-owning/training scene was inevitable. The difficulty was in translating what I knew into Visually-oriented Guy thoughts.

An instructional cartoon strip in a male fitness magazine was very helpful. In fact, I subscribe to at least one masculine magazine to help me get the male *voice* as authentic as possible.

And then, there was the police sharp-shooter. This was a telephone interview, it took place a good nine years ago. As I recall, my sharp-shooter advised me on a good (and sexy) choice of weapon for an assassin to use, and where I could go to get one.

The hero of Forced Mate is Prince Tarrant-Arragon, the god-Emperor of Tigron: he's arrogant, condescending and has spent his entire life surrounded by yes-men. But he's also a decent, caring guy, underneath all the bluster. He's smart too. What was the most challenging aspect of creating Arragon?

The most challenging aspect… He was my focal character, and by far the most complex and fascinating to me. Forced Mate was his story, really.

The only challenging aspect I can think of, at this point, was the trouble I had "softening" his raunchier thoughts. The ebook version is less sanitized… less politically correct.

The mores of the society that Arragon rules are different from Earth's: in fact, the freewheeling, sensual, open style of the Djinn reminds me of the exploits of the Greek gods and goddesses. How did you approach the world-building for the Forced Mate series?

"I remember wondering what Darth Vader would be like in bed. There was a recurring dream inspired by something I'd read in my childhood where a dark character named either Number One or Numeral One hunts the hidden heroine. I thought it would be cool to portray a romance as a chess game, and perhaps have every chapter subtitled after a chess move or piece or position."
I'd compare my world building to making a good curry from scratch. You are right, there is a healthy portion of Greek Literature in the mix, also some ideas from excellent publications such as Discovery, Men's Health, Scientific American, Popular Science; and adaptations of theories such as those of Erich von Daeniken that all our ancient gods and mythological heroes were aliens. There's spicy stuff I've gleaned from watching Animal Planet and Discovery channel -- and picking up gems such as that lions mate every fifteen minutes non-stop for two or three days… and a great deal of wide ranging information about alpha males, sexual prerogatives and mating rights. Also, there's a liberal application of information from Psychology, Philosophy, and Sociology textbooks, and a sprinkling from historical/geographical studies of sexual behavior. But, in a nutshell, Tarrant-Arragon's world is High-Tech Feudal.

Because the heroine Djinni was raised on Earth, she is a bit shocked by Arragon's straightforward approach to romance-- not to mention her kidnapping. But as a Saurian Knight with martial arts prowess, she never succumbs to her fear. What was the greatest challenge in writing Djinni? Were there any traits or characteristics that you particularly tried to avoid with her?

My problem was that I was much more interested in my hero, Tarrant-Arragon than I was in Djinni-vera. She had to be made more proactive, more assertive and spirited than I initially felt was realistic for a young woman her chronological age in her predicament. Nevertheless, some critics find her wimpy and tiresome. I don't know whether you'd call it a trait or characteristic, but I was determined that she should never kick an enemy -- or a friend -- in the groin.

One of my favorite characters was Grievous, the human who ends up working for Arragon. How did you create Grievous? And will we see him again?

Most characters are made up of my impressions of at least three people I've met or literary characters I've studied. The English mercenary, Grievous, for instance is part proud ex-military Dorset janitor, part Enobarbus (a secondary character in Shakespeare's Anthony and Cleopatra), part six-foot-nine inch SAS ex-boyfriend whom I used to think of as OO6.9. Grievous is a favorite of mine, too. And yes, he will make appearances in the sequel. In fact, I recently wrote a crucial scene in which his typically British fondness for the underdog has unanticipated consequences.

There were quite a few scenes set in Arragon's luxurious bathroom. Are you fond of luxurious bathrooms? What is the most fabulous bathroom you've ever seen?

If by seen, you mean "enjoyed first hand," probably one attached to a suite in the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas. The deep tub could be accessed over a tiled ledge and through a sort of window at the bedside.

On the other hand, there was a suite at a hotel in Hilton Head where we had four bathrooms. None of them was particularly large, but the quantity was astonishing… for two people!

I have seen more fabulous bathrooms on the Style TV channel, and some of the ideas I had, such as a toilet that does urinalysis, have been invented -or at least, have come to market- since I first copyrighted Forced Mate in 1997.

You are right, there are a lot of bathroom scenes in Forced Mate. It seems to me, if the hero and heroine are going to be in close quarters for several months, they are going to have to freshen up periodically. It cannot be politely ignored, so it might as well be glamorized.

Can you give us a hint about the next book in the series?

The working title is Insufficient Mating Material? with the question mark. It is another chess title with more than one connotation. Insufficient mating material refers to an end game position sometimes reached by well matched rivals. The heroine -- who is a fashionista, and relies too much on outward appearances -- assumes that she has had a sexually inadequate mate foisted upon her.

As I thought about my answer for your question, I was going to say something terse and catchy, like Taming Of The Shrew meets the Frog Prince. But, I went ahead and read Taming Of The Shrew, and found Shakespeare's humor too cruel, and his hero's treatment of the heroine didn't appeal to me at all. I am going another route. More The Admirable Chrichton.

Anyway, the next full length romance in the series will be what happens next with Princess Martia-Djulia and Prince Djetthro-Jason.

What are your thoughts about love scenes? Are they more or less challenging to write than, say, action scenes? Do you allow your husband to read them before they go to your publisher?

Yes, I find love scenes difficult to write. Yes, they are more challenging than action scenes. Firstly, there's the vocabulary. There are certain words one sees all the time in romance novels. I like to try and avoid as many of those words as possible, especially if I am writing about aliens. For example, if the heroic alien is a male, but not a "man" (because he is a god, or a Djinn) he is not going to expect the heroine to admire his "manhood", is he? Secondly, it's quite a challenge to find the "right" mix of advancing the plot, having something else going on at the same time, having realistic dialogue, and keeping on topic. Keeping on topic is a problem for me -- I have a terrible tendency to amuse myself (and only myself) -- so much so that I have a name for my lapses.

I call this sort of writing Gorilla Testicles. Too often, I need an editor's help to identify and remove those unfortunate parts. Why Gorilla testicles? I once saw a wildlife program where the scientist found it necessary to measure the size of a sleeping gorilla's testicles using a monkey wrench. I'm not sure why. He must have had an odd sense of humor, like me! The testicles, by the way, were remarkably small; not worth the time and effort involved in measuring them, or in watching them being measured. Taming Of The Shrew Here's the original "Gorilla Testicles" passage from an early draft of Forced Mate:
The trembling began. She fought it. She couldn't afford the paralysis of despair. With a great effort of will, she slid off the high bed and approached the ghastly display. Plenty there to hurt with. Nothing she could kill him with. Or herself. She snatched the first blunt instrument within reach, with no clear idea what she could do with something resembling the monkey-wrench she'd seen in a BBC nature documentary . . . being used to measure an unconscious gorilla's small testicles. She scrambled back to the heavily draped side of bed, and collapsed on the thick, storm-grey carpet, finding a use for the integral magnets inside her skirts. Just in time.
Although the friends whom I consulted liked the entire passage, I realized that the three lines about the gorilla had to be cut. It simply was not in character for the heroine to think about a BBC documentary at a time like this. Besides, those three lines meant that my chapter was a whole page longer.

I'd like to talk about the day to day details of writing. How do you fit your writing with your day job and your family? Can you write "anywhere, anytime" or do you need certain rituals or surroundings to get the creativity flowing?

Funnily enough, sometimes I have more success in writing when I am metaphorically sitting in the soccer field bleachers, or outside the pediatric dentist's office. At home, if I only have an hour or less before some other commitment, it doesn't seem worth sitting down to write.

When you start a new book, do you use outlines? How much of the story do you know before you start the actual writing?

I do not like outlines. I make lists, but they are more likely to be what the hero has in his pockets than what his adventures will be. I feel that I need to get to a point where I "know" the main characters intimately, because -- for me -- what happens to a character, what choices he makes in any given predicament, what he says -- and to whom -- depend very much on the sort of person he is. If I have a process, it is like doing a 1,500 piece jigsaw. I like to make sure I have almost all the pieces, then I work all around the edges, then I work on all the flowery bits… or bits of the similar colors/patterns/ themes, then I sort out the anonymous elements and try them out in different places to see where they fit best.

You have an unusual and very entertaining sense of humor. What books, tv shows, or people do you find funny? Has your sense of humor ever gotten you into trouble?

Thank you. When I was at Cambridge, I thought Monty Python was hilarious. Quite a few of the Monty Python masterminds were at Cambridge, too. I am not sure that I find all of Monty Python as funny today as I did then. Times change. The Lumberjack song remains priceless.

I hesitate to make a list of books or people I find funny. When one expects humor, one is often disappointed. The element of surprise isn't there. Not even a professional comedian can be expected to be invariably funny. As for my getting myself into trouble… of course I have. Especially in emails. The written word is all too easily misinterpreted, humor does not come across.

Who taught you to play chess? What do you enjoy most about it?

"I do not like outlines. I make lists, but they are more likely to be what the hero has in his pockets than what his adventures will be. I feel that I need to get to a point where I 'know' the main characters intimately, because -- for me -- what happens to a character, what choices he makes in any given predicament, what he says -- and to whom -- depend very much on the sort of person he is."
Chess is intellectually stimulating, and good clean fun. I've no idea why it is considered a game for warriors… male warriors. I love the heart-pounding tension when I make a bold and risky move, and risk losing a Heavy Piece if I've made a mistake and my opponent notices. To the best of my recollection, I was taught to play chess by our lower school Latin and Greek Literature master, Mr. Peter Colley.

Perhaps the first celebrity I ever met was the late Chess Grandmaster and President of the World Chess Federation, Max Euwe, who came to Guernsey to play in an exhibition simultaneous chess match against twenty-seven representatives. I was my school's champion three years in a row, so I was one of the two schoolchildren among the twenty-seven. I lasted for three hours and was one of the last people to be defeated. That was because I was not playing a logical, classical game.

How has being a mother affected you as a writer?

Being a mother puts limits on the time I have for my writing, and makes my ability to meet deadlines less easy to predict. I don't have the flexibility to write for as many hours as I might want to or need to. We're in the first years of school when my child seems to bring home another illness every other week, and to generously pass it around the family in one form or another, so someone always needs Doctor Mom.

There are delights to being a mother that outweigh the interruptions. Also, there are aspects of being a writer that probably make me a better mother.

What do you miss about England?

My family. My friends. The sounds of English summers. Enclosed English gardens. Snowdrops in early spring and sweet peas -- the flowers -- in early summer.

What are your favorite ways to unwind and de-stress after a trying day?

I don't. I make a list for the next day. I am a morning person, and I am fortunate enough to overlook a lake. I watch the dawn of a new day over the ever-changing water. That is how and when I unwind.

What are some of your pet peeves in life?

In life? I don't like professional fund raisers who feel they have a right to call me up and thank me for contributions I never gave them as a preamble to asking me for a fresh pledge, though they mispronounce my name, sound as if they are eating their own dinner as they speak-while keeping me from mine -- and are completely misinformed about my political/religious/charitable affiliations. And then, when contradicted, they argue that my name is on their list, so surely I must be wrong about my own political/religious/charitable convictions. Worse are the fund raisers or issue promoters who can't be bothered to make their own calls, and use a tape recording!

I don't much care for pushy strangers who call me up to imply that they have a file on me, and know how much my mortgage is, and can offer me a better deal; or boiler room people who try to tell me that they are close acquaintances of my husband -- when they are not -- and that he has asked them to call him about this splendid investment….

There's probably a common thread or two in those peeves!

What is your advice to the aspiring romance writer?

Rowena Cherry and her husband
Rowena Cherry and her husband in Pebble Beach.
Persist. Network. Enter contests for the advice you will receive. Write gracious and positive thank-you notes to your anonymous judges, even if you don't particularly agree with what well-intentioned critics are telling you.

Start your future mailing list early (always with the consent of your correspondents) so that you will have friends when you need them…when you are getting the word out about your forthcoming release.

Lock in your own name for your website before you become famous. You do not want to have to be www.theofficialyourfirstnamelastname.com. Say "thank you" often and as graciously as possible. And with that, I would like to say a big Thank You for your time and interest today to everyone reading this, and to Writers Write for giving me this delightful opportunity to talk about myself and Forced Mate.

It was our pleasure!

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