I spent most of my life resistant to romance novels, and I’d probably still be in that space if it weren’t for Isla Dean. When Isla released her first book, Hidden Harbor, I mostly read it out of a sense of duty to my friend. I wasn’t at all surprised to enjoy her book, even if it was romance. It was like a little vacation for my brain, and it was a super fast read.
Because she is a badass of production, Isla had soon published a second and third novel I zoomed through, then more novels and novellas. I started to develop a habit of disappearing into the escapes she offered with welcoming settings and engaging characters. My taste for her books grew as they distinguished themselves as effective palate cleansers between heavier fare or as a way to calm my monkey mind when anxious thoughts were keeping me up at night.
My desire for more content grew, and eventually she wasn’t able to keep up with me, so I asked for a recommendation. She turned me on to Nora Roberts, and suddenly I had to dismount my high horse and accept that I liked (some) romance novels.
One of the great surprises for me as a new romance reader was that these books didn’t offend my feminist sensibilities. In fact, they often played to it. My first romance writers were spinning wish fulfillment worlds for me that typically included a strong woman who was immersed in a satisfying career when a handsome man started demanding some of her attention. (There were no heaving bosoms. There was no pulsing manhood.)
A second surprise was that romance can get downright geeky. There are fairly mainstream sub-genres dedicated to the paranormal, time travel and fantasy. Beyond those, a quick Amazon search will yield countless titles fitting into even the most obscure niches.
I asked Isla if she would sit down with me to talk about how her identity as a feminist intersects with her identity as a romance novelist, as well as to glean some more insight into this world. She generously agreed, and here’s our conversation:
Leona Laurie: You identify as a feminist, which is a word a lot of people have resistance to. Can you share a little bit about what that means to you?
Isla Dean: I understand that some people have resistance to words like “moist.” That makes sense; it’s a bit of an awkward word. But the idea that advocating for equal rights of anyone—women, people of color, people of a certain religion or sexual orientation—would be cause for resistance, that doesn’t make sense to me. We’re at a time in our culture where long-standing and important issues are coming to light in a new way—including feminism—and I’m grateful to have grown up in a family that celebrates empowerment. When we empower individuals to feel good, do good and be equal players, I believe we lift ourselves as a whole.
LL: Do you see any conflict between being a romance novelist and being a feminist?
ID: A terrific question. Here we go: First, romance novels—a billion dollar a year industry—is an area of fiction that is written largely (though not entirely) by women, for women, about women. Given that, it’s not surprising there is a stigma associated with the genre. I couldn’t be prouder to be part of an industry with women at the heart and helm of it.
Second, love is a powerful emotion, perhaps the most powerful emotion we have available to us. Our collective culture doesn’t always assign value to stories about love and relationships, or stories that are female-driven. Romance celebrates the spirit of love inside of us, and millions of women in the world know the value, power and enjoyment of romance novels.
Lastly, the romance industry has undergone an evolution just like many other forms of entertainment and media. Romance novels in the early 80’s were quite different than the romance available today. There are many popular fiction writers (who could, arguably, be considered feminists) whose shoulders I stand on. And in the genre of romance, Nora Roberts must have very strong shoulders because generations of writers are taking taller strides because of her.
LL: Surely romance isn’t 100% by and for straight cis women. What do you see that flips gender roles, serves an LGBTQ audience, emphasizes relationship over ravishment and/or incorporates diversity across race/age/disabilities/etc.?
ID: According to Nielsen, women make up over 80% of romance book buyers. And if you consider that romance is a billion dollar a year industry, that 80% is quite significant.
One of the things I love most about romance is that there is something for everyone. Suspense? LGBTQ? Science Fiction? Humor? Horror? Steampunk? Urban Fantasy? Paranormal? You can find it in romance.
Recently I spoke with a group of readers on the topic of diversity in romance. I feel very proud that we’re a fairly nimble genre that adapts to shifts and changes in our culture, and creates new sub-genres, as there becomes an audience for it. We’re also at an empowering time in the industry where there are many opportunities for new voices to be heard. If you don’t find what you want to read (Goodreads is a great place to start), and you have the desire to do so, write the story yourself.
LL: Having read all of your books, I know that you invest a lot of energy in creating an engaging setting that factors heavily into the escapism I come to you for. Nora Roberts seems to do the same with bathroom fixtures. Can you talk a bit about how romance authors gratify their readers’ desires outside of the bedroom and how these gratifying elements parallel things you might see in more traditionally male-oriented literature?
ID: The fact that you find romance in Nora Roberts’ description of bathroom fixtures is a testament to her dynamism as a writer. And I’m honored that you come to me for a dose of escapism alongside Nora. I’m in excellent company.
As a writer, I tend to write from an intuitive, feeling-focused place. I am not thinking, “What gratifying element could I insert here?” Everyone’s process is different, some may find that approach beneficial, but I approach reading and writing quite similarly—I am a feeling-based writer, as well as a feeling-based reader. If something feels authentically gratifying, then I’m a happy camper.
One of the beautiful things about fiction in general is that there is something for everyone. What’s gratifying for one person may not be gratifying to another, regardless of the gender of the writer or reader. Not everyone appreciates the “romance of a well designed bathroom,” (shocking, I know!) which is just fine because in fiction, there are so many worlds available to dive into. There are days when, as a reader, I want to be in County Clare, Ireland, making my way through the green hills toward the nearest pub (Nora Roberts’ Born In trilogy), or when I want to walk the eerily thrumming vastness that is the Overlook Hotel (Stephen King’s The Shining) or when I want to tap into the gritty, late night world of a female mob luminary (Megan Abbott’s Queenpin).
LL: Do you feel an obligation to interject socially conscious themes into your work?
ID: I write fiction. My job is to tell the most authentic story that I can, each and every time, and I take that responsibility to heart. If I inserted public service announcements into my writing, it would become about me, the writer, rather than about the characters and their story.
One thing I do, however, before the start of every book is to set an intention for what I want to explore or express. It’s not a marketing tagline, not a grand theme, but something that is part of the pulse of the book. For example, my latest book that I’m working on now is an exploration into having to choose between doing what’s right, and doing what’s right for family. My book Villa Blue explores the idea of an introvert who is not shy, and who strives to be of purpose with her strengths, rather than magically becoming extroverted (and therefore better understood by society).
I also don’t shy away from writing about grittier matters that are current to our culture and time—if it’s authentic to the story. For example, one of my books, Valor In Darkness, touches on the topic of the slave trade. There are over 35 million slaves in the world today—which I was shocked to discover through research for the book—but it was an organic discovery that lent itself to the story.
I do certainly have passionate readers who share with me their opinions about choices my characters make. I’ve had readers who were displeased that a certain set of characters didn’t use a condom in a sex scene, for example, and that’s wonderful—I’m happy to hear that my writing sparks important conversations related to protecting against unwanted pregnancy, STDs and AIDS. As much as I want to please readers—without them, I wouldn’t have a job—I’m not going to insert PSAs into my books, nor am I going to preach to people about what they should or shouldn’t be doing in the privacy of their own bedrooms.
LL: Are there authors you respect for their socially conscious stories?
ID: I feel a bit funny answering this question, to be honest, and I think it’s because when I read a story that I fall into, I fall in love with it for personal reasons, not analytical reasons. Arguably, I will most likely enjoy stories that “say something,” but again, I feel like it’s personal to me, not necessarily something that should be stamped “socially conscious.”
Since this isn’t the first time you’ve lovingly pestered me for names [laughs], here are a few I’ve read/reread recently: Fool Me Once by Harlan Coben—I appreciated that the main character was a woman who was both strong and flawed as she dealt with PTSD. Brotherhood In Death by J.D. Robb—I can’t say what I want to about this book without giving it away, so let’s just say this book tackled justice in a way that many women can relate to. The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett—A classic from 1934. I read the book quite a while ago, then recently watched the movie. The female character—Nora Charles—defies the “traditional” wife role in suspense/mystery and didn’t work to prevent the hero from his greatness, as we so often see. Instead, she’s a warm, witty, supportive, curious partner in the story.
LL: You tend not to make political statements publicly, but the recent “50 Shades” defense of the “Trump tape” led to a tweet, in which you said, “There’s an extremely important difference between reading/writing about sex in romance novels & being sexually assaulted.” Could you elaborate on what you meant and why you felt compelled to speak out?
ID: My books should be about the stories and the characters, not about me as a writer. I don’t have any interest in shifting the narrative my way. But when I started seeing people in our country argue that women who read sex scenes in romance shouldn’t be angry about sexual assault, I was compelled to add my voice to the mix.
Political affiliation aside, there is a vast and extremely important difference between writing/reading/watching sex scenes in our many forms of media and being sexually assaulted. And the resulting “shaming” that is implied (that if you read sex scenes, then you shouldn’t be upset about being a victim of sexual assault) is a detrimental and dangerous assertion to make. It also lacks basic reason—it’s like saying that if—heaven forbid—a crazed maniac kills your family, you shouldn’t be upset because you read Stephen King.
There are some people who may not understand or feel the importance of what it means to be a woman in the world today, and that’s okay. There are millions who do. There are also some women who don’t understand what it is like to be sexually assaulted. Unfortunately, there are millions who do. To not understand something because it’s not part of your experience is fine—that’s learnable, often through reading. To shame or demean someone because their experience is other than your own is not okay.
Reading expands our horizons, helps us to understand what life is like in someone else’s shoes and helps us to shift the feelings within ourselves, enabling us to escape into a different “reality.” For this reason, I am immensely proud to be a woman, I am proud to be a writer and I am proud to write romance that focuses on the heart of matters, where the power of love prevails, where justice is served, and where there is a happy ever after. We need more “good feelings” in our lives.
LL: Where can our readers look for your work, and what do you have in the pipeline?
I have several romantic suspense novels in the pipeline for 2017. If you sign up for my newsletter I’ll keep you posted on release dates!
On a final note, thank you so much Leona Laurie and Geek Girl Authority for the opportunity to have this conversation, especially at a time when the narrative of feminism is such an important one.
Isla Dean is the #1 bestselling author of romance and romantic suspense including Valor In Darkness, Villa Blue, and the One Night Collection. Her work has been featured in Cosmopolitan, USA Today, and PopSugar. Born in a small town, her residential adventures later took her to New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and San Francisco. She currently writes and plays with her puppy in her lair in the mountains of California.
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