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Embracing the Romance Novel

Books: Writers and fans of the genre--men included--share their passion at convention.


ANAHEIM — Harold Lowry never got around to seeing "As Good as It Gets," James L. Brooks' Oscar-winning romantic comedy. You'd think he would have, simply out of professional curiosity.

Like Jack Nicholson's misanthropic Melvin Udall character, Lowry is that rarity of the publishing industry: a man who writes romance novels.

But Lowry has been too busy writing romances to go to the movies. He wrote three last year. "I did an extra book for Silhouette, and it just tied me to the chair," said Lowry, 56, of Charlotte, N.C.

The former high school music teacher has written 20 historical and contemporary romances, but don't look under "Lowry" to find them. Lowry writes under the gender-neutral name Leigh Greenwood.

He is among 1,600 professional and aspiring writers, literary agents and publishing executives in Anaheim this week for the 18th annual Romance Writers of America National Conference.

Romance fiction now generates about $1 billion per year in sales in the United States, up from $855 million in 1992. Last year, 2,700 romance titles were published. And there's no lack of readers to gobble them up. Fifty-three percent of all mass market paperback books sold in the United States are romance fiction.

Nearly all of their readers are women, as are the writers. Of 300 romance writers signing books at the conference, only two were men.

The mega book-signing session came on the eve of the four-day conference, which began Thursday at the Anaheim Hilton & Towers. The session, which is raising money for national and local literacy programs, was promoted locally this week during afternoon television soap operas.

The result: More than 1,000 romance fans--virtually all of them women--filled a cavernous ballroom where row upon row of book-laden tables were set up.

With the exception of the husband-and-wife writing team of Jim and Nikoo McGoldrick of Philadelphia, who write as May McGoldrick, Lowry was the only male writer at the tables.

Lowry, conservatively dressed in a gray-green suit and with the dignified air of a church choir director (which he once was) was there for his fans--chatting it up and scrawling "Best wishes" or "Happy reading" in copies of "Buck" and "Ward," the latest in his "Cowboys" series of historical romances.

Some fans were surprised to discover that Leigh Greenwood is a lanky 6-foot-3 man with thinning hair and a trim mustache. Others knew.

Lila Lubak, a 70-year-old fan from Corona who has read 10 of Lowry's historical romances, discovered that Leigh Greenwood was a man only a couple of weeks ago, when a bookseller friend informed her.

"I couldn't believe it," Lubak said, looking at Lowry/Greenwood. "I thought he was a woman writing them. Sorry."

Lowry looked up from signing her book and laughed.

"No problem," he said. "You're supposed to think that."

Lowry chose his pen name after going through a list "of all the androgynous names I could find." He knew he couldn't use his real name.

"The industry won't let you," he said. "It's sort of like [a man] buying an action-adventure novel by Annette or Phyllis. It just won't go."

An estimated 45 million women in North America--and a small but unknown number of men--read romance novels, according to Harlequin Enterprises, the largest publisher of romances. Some fans read as many as 14 a month.

Romance Writers of America has grown along with the popularity of the steamy, often critically maligned literary genre.

Founded in Houston in 1980 by 37 charter members, the national nonprofit writers association has grown to more than 8,000 members and 160 chapters.

Among this year's workshop offerings: "Crafting the Perfect Hero: It Takes More Than a Million Bucks, a Stetson and Some Tight-Fitting Jeans" and "Writing Safer Sex," a session on researching vintage birth control methods in order to depict more accurate love scenes in historical romances.

The highlight of the conference is the RITAS, the Romance Writers of America's answer to the Oscars. The black-tie awards ceremony Saturday night is named after the group's first president, Rita Clay Estrada.

Keynote speaker Julie Garwood, who has had 15 of her 17 historical romance novels reach the New York Times paperback bestseller list, has a simple theory as to why romance novels generate so much reader passion.

"I think a happy ending and a story that's a relationship story that's uplifting, there's always an appeal for that," she said.

That's not to say romances haven't evolved over the heated market of the past 18 years.

Romance Writers of America president Olivia Hall, who writes under the name Laurie Paige, says readers today want heroines who are strong women who take charge of their lives.

The days when a young heroine went off to the Amazon to find her long-lost brother, uncle, father or fiance and must then be saved by the handsome hero are long over, said Hall, a former computer engineer at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

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