I don’t follow the romance field, but I do listen to a variety of podcasts, including the new “This Is Love” podcast by the creators of “Criminal.” This week, host Phoebe Judge interviewed Brenda Jackson (episode title “Always Tomorrow”), and I was delighted to learn about her.
Jackson broke into romance writing at first by accident. She started out with–and has maintained–a refreshingly straightforward and positive view of sex and sexuality, especially women’s sex and sexuality. Coming out of a long and happy marriage to a man who was delighted by her success and her subject matter, her basic stance is that our bodies are designed for enjoyment. Although she is extremely modest, she has put a lot of time and energy into exploring what she likes, and what her readers like, and what works and doesn’t work–and she talks about that freely.
Her career didn’t begin as smoothly as her actual writing did. In the early 1990s, editors liked her first book but none of them would buy it, and none of them would tell her why (“It just isn’t right for us”). Eventually, an editor at a romance writers’ convention finally admitted the truth: “I’d buy your book in a heartbeat if the characters were white.” When pressed, the editor gave the tired old responses: “There’s no market for romances with black characters.” “Our readers don’t identify with your characters.” And so forth and so on.
Jackson couldn’t see why she should change her characters’ skin colors–after all, she read romance with white characters and identified just fine. She kept going to writers’ conventions, and connected with a small group of other African-American “wannabe writers” (her term). Finally, an editor at Harlequin approached them, complimented them on their patience and perseverance, and started Arabesque, a line of African-American romances.
You can guess the punchline: the books flew off the shelves. The readers were there all along; the obstacle was the cowardice of the publishers. Now, Brenda Jackson has published over 100 books and African-American sexy romance is an established publishing niche, known to attract audiences and make money.
Jackson is an immensely likable interviewee. I feel sure that her books have the same combination of sweetness and no-nonsense attitude that she shares during the podcast. Listen to the whole 20-minute interview; you’ll be glad you did.