Grande Dame of Romance
Alumna and best-selling author talks bodice-ripping and happily ever after
Jasmine Cresswell is one of the world's most prolific romance novelists: Her 70-plus books have sold more than 16 million copies. But writing novels wasn't her first true love. Cresswell worked for the British Foreign Service, lived around the globe and earned a master's in history and archival administration in 1975 from Case Western Reserve University before writing her first "bodice-ripper." Says the 70-year-old, Welsh-born author who lives in Colorado and Florida, "I only started this book-writing venture because I was so utterly clueless about it."
How did you come to write your first novel?
My husband was doing consultant work for Harlequin Romance in Toronto when we lived there. He was leaving a meeting when someone gave him an armful of their novels and said, "Maybe your wife would like these." I started to read them and the idea hit me—it was both naïve and arrogant—that I could write a romance novel. I didn't tell anyone what I was doing. Three months later I thrust a manuscript into my husband's hands and said, "Read this. I've written a book."
And that manuscript sold?
Yes, to a publisher in England that churned out very bad books—and I'd written a very bad book. [Laughs] The title should give you a clue: Forgotten Marriage (1978). Among the other things I didn't know was that the most overworked theme in commercial fiction was amnesia.
What makes a good romance novelist?
The most important thing is the ability to provide entertaining storytelling and to develop characters that really grab you. The characters have to be admirable and heroic, rather than post-modern, irreversibly flawed protagonists. In that sense, romance novels are still very old-fashioned.
So you don't set out each time to write the Great American Novel?
Most people who are new or aspiring writers very often try to express something profound or meaningful to them. They want to write a book that's going to be an important piece of fiction. Writing my first novel was an effort to write something utterly light and entertaining.
Some critics thumb their noses at the romance genre as not being real literature. Does that bother you?
I still cringe over the whole bodice-ripper image. The most interesting thing about the romance genre is its ability to reflect and grow as the culture changes. The romance novel written in 1980 is nothing like the romance novel being published today. Most romance novels nowadays deal with issues or with alternate realities or an element of suspense.
The covers of your books seem tame by "bodice-ripper" standards. Do you have much input with illustrations?
There's been much change in the industry over the past 30 years. Bodice-ripping gave way to flowers and pictures of women in sumptuous clothing. Covers today tend to reflect the sub genre, so my covers have a hint of menace along with some feminine icon to reassure readers that they aren't buying a Tom Clancy clone by mistake.
How would you describe your audience?
I don't know who my audience is, actually, but I think I have slightly more male readers than most romance authors, maybe because of the suspense element. Men do read romances, although they don't acknowledge it. But I write to entertain myself. When you're working on the book, the person you have to satisfy is yourself.
You've slowed your pace since 2008's Payback. Why is that?
If you're doing a book every nine months, sometimes two a year, a lot of things fall by the wayside. I realized that not only had I missed many important events in the lives of my four children, but I was about to miss many important events in my grandkids' lives because I always had a deadline.
So when can we expect to read your work in progress?
Sometime in 2012. It's a romantic suspense titled Heiress, but I have really emphasized the suspense. It's complicated enough that it's taking me a while to get it right.
Why is it that romance novels always end with smiles all around?
One thing you have to absolutely be committed to is the concept of the happy ending. That is the one unbreakable rule. Everybody who reads romances wants the ending to be happy. That's what they're reading for. That's why I read them, too. My family all mock me for that. My kids say, "It's OK, Mom, you can go to the movie. It has a happy ending."
At age 72, is there anything on your "bucket list" that you'd like to accomplish?
I would love to try to write a piece of music, a meditation, based on the book of Revelation in the Bible. Revelation is dreamlike, sort of mystical—not scientific. I doubt I could pull it off, but if I live long enough, I'd like to try.