Rhoda Baxter is the first of two interviewees who writes in one of the world’s biggest and most popular genres. In Rhoda’s case, it’s romance. Her fifth book, Girl in Trouble, is just out and I wonder if she considers her work part of a sub-genre or does she prefer not to pigeonhole her books like that?
‘I used to be bothered by the idea of pigeonholing my books,’ she says, ‘but I'm more relaxed about it now because it lets the readers know what to expect.’ She goes on to explain one of the difficulties which is that the pigeonholes change from country to country.
‘In the UK, what I write is considered contemporary romance; by definition, set in the present and involving two characters falling in love. There are usually jokes, so that makes it... romantic comedy or “chicklit”. On the other hand, my books often deal with slightly darker themes behind the joking; the current book is about fathers and daughters and the choice to remain childless, which is not what people expect from romantic comedy. That nudges the books into women's fiction.'
‘In America, my novels are, arguably, not even proper romances because they focus on other things as well as on the couple. And there isn't enough sex! I could say they were “sweet” romances, because of said lack of on-page sex, but then the language is not clean by US standards. Being Brits my characters are fairly free with 'bloody' and 'bugger' type words. So maybe not “sweet” romance then. But if you look at the books that are classed as Romantic Comedy on the US Amazon site, you're faced with acres and acres of bare man-chest. My poor little cartoony covers look completely out of place. The best description for my books in the US would be “novel with strong romantic elements”, which, according to Amazon, isn't a real sub-genre.
‘I write two sorts of books - light romantic comedy and the standalones which are slightly darker and lean towards women's fiction rather than romance. The latest is a lighter book, but has a very angry protagonist.
‘So, the short answer is, I have no problem with pigeonholing my books. The difficulty is finding which pigeonhole to cram them into.’
Having given me a whole new angle to think about, Rhoda adds, ‘I bet you're sorry you asked now!’
No, not in the least. I want to present people thinking on the page, exploring ideas. I ask Rhoda if she’s ever tried to write up an interview with a subject whose longest answer to any question was yes or no. She promises to keep the comprehensive answers coming.
Given this fluidity of sub-genre, I wonder if Rhoda writes for a particular audience and is that audience different for the different books? Her answer is specific enough to surprise me.
‘I've always written with a particular reader in mind. She's a friend who went to school with me and she was my first reader when I wrote stories in my teens. She's well read, geeky and cynical but a romantic at heart, a lot like me. Since my books were published, I've realised that there are more people who like the same sort of thing. I tend to attract readers who like their romances to be plausible and accurately depicted, especially where scientist characters are involved. No 25-year-old ingénues with two PhDs leading research groups here. Who'd want to do two PhDs anyway?!’
Good point! I find myself quite taken with this idea of the specific audience of one. I can see where it could not only work but make a few decisions on the direction of a book a lot easier to make. So essentially she is happy with her chosen genre, but are there any down-sides?
‘There's so much competition!’ she says. ‘There's also a fair bit of snobbery from non-readers of romance - usually people who looked at a cover of a Mills and Boon book once in the 1970’s and decided they “don't read romance”. That's annoying. On the other hand, there's a large romance writing community where everyone is really friendly and the people who do read romance are usually voracious readers and are on the lookout for new books to read all the time.’
That last point is an undoubted plus as romance is by far the best-selling genre around the world. Rhoda’s previous four books have all been well-received. Her first, Girl On The Run, chose the unexpected setting of a patent law firm; Please Release Me (set in a hospice) was shortlisted for a Love Stories award in 2015 and Girl Having a Ball was shortlisted for the prestigious RoNA (best romantic comedy) award in 2017.
Her books all have a distinct new angle. What draws her to one idea, setting or context over another?
Rhoda’s initial, ‘Hmm...’ reassures me that she hasn’t yet been tempted down the monosyllabic route. ‘I tend to look at the ideas I have,’ she tells me. ‘Then I jump on the one that feels the most exciting. It's not a scientific way of doing things. If I have a commitment I have to meet, like a novella that needs to be written by Christmas, then I'll do that first. I usually start with a scenario. For example, in Girl In Trouble, I started with the premise of what happens if a woman who is determined to be child-free accidentally gets pregnant?’
Sounds like the perfect premise for one of Rhoda’s books.
That ‘Hmm...’ again. ‘All books start off as a vast, wonderful idea,’ she points out. ‘But they inevitably turn out to be harder to execute than I anticipated. When Iris Murdoch said "Every book is the wreck of a beautiful idea," she was spot on.’
There’s food for thought here and some intriguing angles on the business of novel writing. My final question is to ask Rhoda to tell me something about Girl in Trouble. This is the question to which I expect the longest answer of the interview.
She says, ‘When things go wrong, is Olivia too stubborn to accept help?’
And that’s it. The shortest answer I’ve had from her! But in her own unique style, it’s specific, it’s unexpected and a whole stack of hidden agendas peep temptingly from behind that brief reply. My advice is to click HERE and go get the book.
You can find out more about Rhoda on her website