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Romance Is in the Air in Denver, as Novelists Gather for Conference

Literature: Their world of happy endings contrasted by Sept. 11, writers contemplate how their work fits into the larger scheme of things.

July 21, 2002|J.R. MOEHRINGER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DENVER — Their world is filled with lanky cowboys who can lasso any heart, and bare-chested brutes who can be tender. Their world is filled with fiery heroines named Belle and Dee and Savannah, who fend off the cowboy or the brute for a few dozen pages, then succumb.

Sweat sometimes glistens in their world. Bosoms often heave. And curtains fluttering in and out of an open window can mean one thing and one thing only.

But good guys always win in their world, and every ending is happy, and love is always the blessing that it should be, which makes their world a nice place to be nowadays.

Last week they brought their world to Denver's Adam's Mark Hotel for the 22nd annual Romance Writers of America National Conference. Nearly 2,000 writers and fans of what may be America's most popular literary genre, which accounts for more than half of all paperback fiction sold in the U.S., gathered for three days to trade ideas, talk shop and contemplate how their world of fantasy can fit into the larger world, which is suddenly focused on harsh reality.

The challenge was daunting. But the mood among the attendees, nearly all women, was upbeat. Large crowds still turned out to meet superstars like Nora Roberts, who sold more paperbacks last year than John Grisham or Stephen King. Editors and agents still held impromptu meetings against a backdrop of blown-up covers from books like "Devil in a Kilt" and "Taming the Tabloid Heiress." Aspiring authors still flocked to writing workshops called "How to Marry an English Lord" and "Waiting to Climax: Living on the Verge of Publishing."

Despite a dramatic downturn in the publishing industry, demand for romance novels has remained steady since Sept. 11, according to convention organizers, who say the reason for $1.4 billion in yearly sales is simple: Sex sells, but romance soothes. And romance fiction, they insist with pride and prejudice and a dash of patriotism, can be a healing balm for a nation with shredded nerves.

Some of the most popular writers at this year's conference, however, were those with voices and styles best suited to the war on terrorism, writers who combine the armor of Tom Clancy with the amour of Judith Krantz. Heading that list was Suzanne Brockmann.

Brockmann, a mother of two from Massachusetts, is considered a "rising" star in the romance world, though she's published 33 novels, more than Ernest Hemingway and Henry James combined. Her books have sold millions of copies, and many have been translated into a dozen languages. But with her flair for military heroes and her interest in terrorism, Brockmann could be poised to move into that next realm, to become the Nora Roberts of the war era.

Brockmann's heroes have always been Navy SEALs, and many of the foes and pitfalls she's had them face have proved prophetic. "Over the Edge," the novel Brockmann wrote months before Sept. 11, featured a hijacked commercial airliner. The next manuscript she mailed to her publisher, on Sept. 10, described a character boarding a flight with a Swiss army knife.

And yet Brockmann said she tries to use realism sparingly.

"I provide people with an escape," she said Friday after signing books for more than 150 fans. "But I also hear from people who say, 'Thank you for writing books ... where terrorists get their [tails] kicked, Navy SEAL-style.' "

Everywhere Brockmann went at the conference, a crowd gathered. Her book-signing outdrew even the popular workshop in which a panel of authors gave graphic instructions for writing about sex. ("No more euphemisms," one author pleaded. "No more 'hidden pearls of ecstasy.' ")

When not lunching with her editor or advising an aspiring young writer, Brockmann was polishing her keynote speech for Saturday's closing luncheon. "I'm going to talk about Sept. 11," she said, sounding nervous about the reception she might get.

Also drawing considerable attention was newcomer Susan Grant. Fans approached Grant throughout the conference, not for autographs but for reassurance that she's all right. They know she is a 13-year co-pilot for United Airlines, and they worry about the stress she endures on her day job.

Aside from the added fear and extra security, Grant says, working for an airline is ideal. The cockpit gives her ideas and a place to compose. She often plots a romance while co-piloting a 747 to Sydney, Australia. She recalled one flight when the muse unexpectedly became her co-pilot, and the idea for her fourth novel took off.

"It's dark over the Pacific," she said. "You're crossing the equator. You can see the Milky Way. It's just you and the stars. I look over at the pilot and I say: 'What if an alien spaceship opened up and swallowed this whole plane?' "

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