Romance novelist writes 'love letter' to Appalachia
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- It's a classic tale of a double life: mild-mannered librarian by day, steamy romance writer by night.
Susan Maguire is the circulation services supervisor for the Kanawha County Public Library, but she is also romance author Sarah Title. When she's not making sure overdue books are returned, she's making pulses race with her new digital book, "Kentucky Home," which came out April 18 from e-Kensington and is available anywhere e-books are sold, like Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble.
Her sexy lead characters Mallory Thompson and Keith Carson discover love and passion underneath their initial frustration with each other at the fictional Wild Rose Farm and Stables. Mallory is distancing herself from a villainous ex-husband, and Keith has withdrawn after his wife's death.
The bookends of heartbreak and healing are expected in a romance novel, but it's the in-between parts that challenge a writer, Maguire said.
"There is sort of a dismissal of all kinds of genre fiction -- that it's predictable and it's not meaningful. I don't like to compare it to literary fiction because I think that makes both kinds of writing come out losing. I think all kinds of reading are valuable," she said.
"People are attracted to the romance formula because it's comforting. But, in the right hands, it's also interesting because you know you have to get from point A to point B, and there are a lot of different ways to get there."
Maguire has a bachelor's degree in English from Vassar College and a master's in library science from Indiana University. She came to Charleston six years ago to take the job at the library, though her passion for books and reading has had the lead in her life since childhood.
She wrote her debut novel, "A Ride on Halley's Comet," when she was in the third grade. Her blog says, "It was a compelling story of one girl's anthropological adventures at a Martian dinner party. Feedback was strong, but reviewers said the science needed work."
"Kentucky Home" came to life when Maguire and a friend, who was living in Kentucky, started having fun with the Harlequin romance novel formula.
"My friend was in Kentucky horse country at the time, and we started creating characters. We made up the feisty Irish horse trainer and the sheik who owns all these thoroughbred horses -- stuff that does appear in romance novels. That is where I jumped off from, but it turned out not at all to be the Kentucky that I wrote about. These people are not rich."
As a transplant to Appalachia, she wanted to write "a love letter of sorts" to the region that captures her feelings about the unexpected warmth and complexity of people here. Though set in Kentucky, Maguire's novel addresses many of her perceptions of her experiences with people in West Virginia.
She began reading romance novels in high school but stopped in college when she became "a serious English major person." When she started toward her master's degree, however, she read a wide range of genres to gain the skills to help library patrons. "I started reading romance again and thought, wait, these are good. That got me back into it."
Maguire had a longstanding interest in writing, but she struggled to find her best form. When she tried her first romance novel, things just "clicked."
She used National Novel Writing Month (an annual November event) to push herself to finish her draft in 2009. She reached 50,000 words, and while the manuscript needed a lot of work, "the characters were there."
"Characters are the most important thing in a romance novel," Maguire said. "The reader needs to fall in love with them so they can enjoy watching them fall in love with each other."
She says there are small pieces of people she knows in some of her creations. "There's one character, Libby, who is sort of the maternal caretaker of the Carson family. I didn't do this consciously, but as I was reading it back I thought, 'Oh, she's kind of like my Aunt Sue, who lives on a sheep farm and has this heal-with-cookies kind of thing.'"
As far as her own personality and life experience go, Maguire says the extent to which she appears in her own characters is their sense of humor. "To me, the weirdest thing is that people will read my book and think that's how my Saturday night is. I guess there are worse things than people imagining I have a healthy sex life. My romantic life is great and fine. It's not the same as in the book. The book is made up."
After receiving encouragement and enthusiasm from her writing-group friends, Maguire decided to finish her manuscript. She wanted to attend a conference she saw in Romantic Times, a big romance novel industry magazine. The full conference was too expensive for Maguire, but there was a pre-conference workshop in Chicago that was more affordable.
"At the end of the workshop there was a prize for your manuscript, and I won. The prize was that it would be read by an editor, and she read it and offered to buy it. I scrambled and got an agent, and here I am."
Romance readers like e-books, she said. "People who love romance novels read a lot, and with e-books you can have a ton of books with you. And people don't have to see the covers. You don't have to be embarrassed by the naked-chest book you're reading," she laughed.
Maguire recently finished a novella that takes place in the same town as does "Kentucky Home" and uses a side character from that book in a larger role. She has a contract to write one more book in e-Kensington's Southern Comfort series, and eventually she will have three full-length books. She also is collaborating with high-profile romance writers Lori Foster and Lucy Monroe.
She said it's important that writers "really commit to fighting with" their manuscripts.
"Think about the excuses you give yourself for not writing. I have a full-time job and a life outside of work, and it is work to carve out time to write. But it's worth it. You have to carve out time to write, and it may not always feel worth it, but it is worth it.
"I wrote the book because I thought it would be fun, and because I thought it was something that would make people happy and that they could enjoy. One review on Goodreads.com says it's "a pleasant read for a cozy afternoon" and I am happy with that. I hope people just enjoy it, and that if they're thinking about writing a book that they do it."