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Black novelist romances readers with characters they can relate to

Mildred Riley, 91, stumbled into a growing sub-category of romance fiction when she began churning out stories centered around African American characters and history.

July 04, 2009|Elizabeth Mehren

SOUTH EASTON, MASS. — It was the height of the Harlem Renaissance, the 1920s in New York City. The couple had found a beautiful apartment, filled with Art Deco trappings, right down to the frosted swans etched into the shower door.

You've worked so hard all day, Roy told Maddie: Why don't you just take a shower and I'll make us some dinner? Then, as she stood beneath the pulsing spray, Maddie saw him in his bathrobe, through the frosted swans. When Roy offered to soap her back, Maddie protested that his bathrobe would get wet. Oh no, Roy replied. The robe fell to the floor and he stepped in to join her.

When Mildred Riley read that scene from her book "No Regrets" at her over-55 apartment complex here, a woman in the audience gasped. Riley stopped, worried she had offended her neighbor.

But Riley's fan said it was envy she was expressing, not shock. "She said, 'I wish it had been me,' " Riley recalled.

In taking up romance writing about 20 years ago, Riley, now 91, tapped into a booming genre. Romance fiction boasts more than 51 million readers in the United States and generates more than $1 billion in sales each year because "things end well for the hero and heroine, despite everything they have to overcome," said Allison Kelley, executive director of the Romance Writers of America.

Over broiled scallops at her favorite restaurant in this community south of Boston, Riley said she had no grand plan to make a political, social or literary statement when she began churning out stories centered around black characters and significant periods in African American history. Nor did she realize she was venturing into a growing sub-category of romance fiction.

Rather, she said, "I wanted to write about people who look like me."

After 40 years in nursing, much of it spent working in psychiatric units, Riley signed up for some writing classes -- more as a way to fill time in retirement than as a strategy to launch a new career. Her first novel, "Yamilla," was published in 1990. It recalled a story passed down from Riley's great-grandmother, about a woman brought to this country from Africa to be a slave. But she refused to submit, insisting she had been born into royalty.

Another book, about an African American in the Massachusetts whaling industry, grew out of a weekend she spent on Nantucket with her late husband, Patterson, an Internal Revenue Service auditor.

The Rileys raised two sons over the course of their solid, almost 50-year marriage, she said. No one strayed or betrayed, and yet out of her imagination pop all manner of cads and two-timers.

Riley's 15th title is due out next year, said Diane Blair, marketing director at Genesis Press, a small publisher in Mississippi that focuses on African American fiction. "Mildred does well," said Blair, adding that Riley's books sell in the 20,000-copy range.

Romance fiction geared to specialized audiences reflects a broader trend in all forms of entertainment, said Kelley, whose Houston-based organization numbers 10,000 authors. Whether watching television or reading romance novels, "people like to have characters they can identify with," she said. She noted that another segment her group is tracking is "Rubenesque romance -- for people who are not young and thin."

As her books circulate electronically and through the Genesis-sponsored Indigo Book Club, Riley is benefiting from another quality of romance readers, said Pamela Regis, a professor of English at McDaniel College in Maryland. Regis, author of "A Natural History of the Romance Novel," explained that "romance readers are loyal. They really do care about who wrote a book, and then they'll read the next one" -- even at a time when budgets are tight.

Riley, who writes an average of two books per year, said her characters simply present themselves, giving her little choice but to tell their stories.

She swears she had no idea that the Iraqi war widow who appeared in her head was going to discover that her husband secretly had banked sperm before he deployed, allowing her to bear his child. And she was as surprised as anyone when she found herself writing about the scion of a blueblood Navy family from Newport, R.I., who falls madly in love with Mercita, who is half Mexican and half African American.

"These characters come to me with lives of their own," she said. "They talk to me, and tell me: 'This is what I want you to say.' "

--

ejmehren@gmail.com

Mehren writes for The Times.

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