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Not real life, but more than fluff

Romance novelist Judith McNaught's bestsellers deliver escapism, with layers.

April 08, 2006|Jamie Stengle | Associated Press

DALLAS — Romance novelist Judith McNaught writes for women like herself -- smart women who want a break from reality by reading love stories with sophisticated dialogue, plotlines and characters.

McNaught had never read a romance novel before accidentally buying one about 30 years ago, prompting her to seek material beyond the usual bodice-rippers. When she couldn't find it, she decided to write her own. She's been writing ever since.

"I never underestimate women's intelligence," says McNaught, who has an avid fan base and a career that has produced 14 novels, most of which have appeared on the New York Times bestseller list.

"I write to make them laugh [and] feel good. I don't need to give them a dose of reality. They deal with reality every day."

McNaught's latest novel, "Every Breath You Take," is a modern romance set on the island of Anguilla, where Kate Donovan falls for Mitchell Wyatt and into a high-society murder case.

"The way she can illustrate the emotional life of her two main characters is just very moving for readers and very unforgettable," says Linda Marrow, vice president and editorial director at Ballantine Books, a part of the Random House publishing group, which published McNaught's latest novel.

Marrow has worked with McNaught since discovering her first novel, "Whitney, My Love," a historical romance set in England, while working at another publishing house.

Before setting off on a literary career, McNaught, 61, worked at jobs that included radio producer and comptroller of a trucking company.

Born in San Luis Obispo, she got a business degree from Northwestern University in 1966. Her interest in writing didn't develop until she was in her 30s, when she inadvertently bought a romance novel while stocking up on books for a family vacation. It was "The Flame and the Flower," by Kathleen E. Woodiwiss.

"I had never in my whole life read a romance novel -- wouldn't have been caught dead reading a romance novel," she says. But she found that she enjoyed Woodiwiss' work. "Besides being very historical, it was also very sensual, lots of dialogue."

In search of similar reads, she discovered that there weren't any: "What passed for romance novels were foolish," she says. She decided that she could do better, and with husband Michael's encouragement, she started writing. Her first version of "Whitney, My Love" took a couple of months. She sent it to publisher after publisher, getting one rejection letter after another. She was told that such novels should be short, never emotionally intense and not sensual.

Spurred by each rejection, she kept adding to the book over a four-year period. "Each time I'm sure that I made it longer and more emotionally intense and more sensual," she says. In the meantime, she sold two stories to Harlequin.

While waiting for the arrival of the cover for her first published book, "Tender Triumph," in 1983, personal tragedy struck. Her husband, a gun collector, died from a gunshot wound when a vintage gun accidentally fired.

"When the book came out five months after that, I didn't really care," she says. "I think I scarcely knew it came out."

By 1985, "Whitney, My Love" was finally published, winning the Romantic Times Award for best new historical novel. But it felt bittersweet without her husband of nine years there to share her success.

"The hero of 'Whitney' was very much patterned after Michael," says McNaught, who lives in Houston. "Michael was my great love. He was the best of men, and could make me laugh. He could also laugh at himself, and that's pretty special."

After her husband's death, McNaught began noticing other women going on with life after being widowed or divorced. "So I write for women like that, women like me," McNaught says.

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