Coloring Outside the Lines
In traditional romance, white heroes and heroines meet and fall in love in largely white, upper-middle class settings. In 1990s, multi-cultural novels and imprints began introducing large readers to African-American heroes and heroines who did the same. But what if you want to cross the lines? What if you want to bring black and white together?
Until recently, you couldn't. You couldn't even read about it. The closest romance readers could get to the reality of the American melting pot was the occasional Western with a Native American hero, who usually proved to be half white. Then Dar Tomlinson published a novel about a "Jamaican in braids and a white woman," reminding romance readers that Romeo and Juliet is more than a play about Montagues and Capulets. Shortly before publication of her second inter-racial romance, Designer Passions, Crescent Blues talked to Tomlinson about clashing cultures, taboos and romance.
Crescent Blues: Let's get the big one out of the way up front. What prompted you, a white woman, to write about inter-racial and inter-cultural romance?
Dar Tomlinson: Let's see... A sense of adventure, maybe. A rebellious streak? All of the above, but I think my chosen subject comes down to a quest for equality. Not only gender to gender equality, but race to race, and culture to culture. While our differences are what make us unique and beautiful, distrust, fear, or in many cases aversion to differences, can be harmful. What better way to dissect those differences, put them in a favorable perspective, and embrace them -- pun intended -- than through the man-woman relationship, a medium as old as time itself?
Crescent Blues: From a publication standpoint, it appears to have been a risky decision. Although you won prizes for your first two Hispanic/Anglo romances, both were rejected by publishers. How did Forbidden Quest -- potentially a much riskier book about a white Savannah woman and a black Jamaican man -- find a publisher?
Dar Tomlinson: Actually, the Hispanic/Anglo novels are mainstream. They've even been labeled by some editors as literary mainstream. See, I've always been adventuresome… Stung by the fact the original novel won the Hemingway First Novel Competition but couldn't find a publisher willing to give the world a chance to read it, I wrote Forbidden Quest as a commercial endeavor. Having studied the markets, analyzing the best odds of getting published, it was my first romance novel.
When my agent received Forbidden Quest, having failed to sell the Hemingway winner, and believing the failure hinged on cross-cultural subject matter, she severed our ties, convinced she'd never be able to sell a book about a, "Jamaican in braids and a white woman." I began marketing the book myself. I saw an ad in Romantic Times -- God bless Kathryn Falk -- about Genesis Press and Wil Colom, publisher and president, whom the article referred to as the Renaissance Man of Romance.
Wil was quoted saying, "We're colorblind here. What we want are great love stories reflecting the polyglot culture of this country. I believe all cultures are fascinating, and all ethnic groups furnish characters that are romantic and heroic." He went on to outline the kinds of stories he wanted. Cross cultural romances. AND(!) the author's ethnicity and what she/he wrote about didn't have to match.
The manuscript lying on my desk seemed made to order. I called Genesis. They said send it. A month later I got the call. Wil Colom liked the book and proposed starting a new Genesis line to accommodate it. Forbidden Quest debuted under the Love Spectrum imprint in October 1998. I keep the Romantic Times article in a file, and take it out and read it now and then, like polishing a favorite jewel, just to strengthen my belief in my writing and my persistent nature.
Crescent Blues: How have readers reacted to this unusual romance pairing?
Dar Tomlinson: I have truly been amazed. I get letters from readers all over the country, every one of them positive. A common phrase runs throughout. "Thank you" -- some even say, "bless you" -- "for or tackling this subject." Then the readers are kind enough to tell me their own stories and compliment me on how well I dealt with the issues outlined in Forbidden Quest. Other readers who have never been involved in a cross-culture relationship, just as I haven't, often remark on the tenderness of the hero, Paul Michael Quest. Based on reader reaction, my experience of seeing the book in print is powerfully rewarding.
Crescent Blues: What kinds of problems have you faced as a white woman telling the stories of men and women of other races?
Dar Tomlinson: I'm searching my mind to give an accurate answer. I would have to say the biggest problem was finding a publisher -- and getting the chance to tell the stories my head conjures and my heart endorses. As I said, I've had no negative feed back from readers, and out of all the Forbidden Quest reviews, only one was negative. [This was] based on the reviewer's concept that the book was unrealistic, because the type of prejudice outlined there no longer exists in the South. It does. I've lived in Atlanta. But that was a few years back, so before writing the book, I went to Savannah, the setting of Forbidden Quest, to see for myself. Prejudice does exist, but in time, love can erase that.
Crescent Blues: Interracial relationships aren't the only publishing taboo you chose to break. Traditional wisdom says a romance heroine should be unattached when the book opens. The heroines of both Forbidden Quest and your new book, Designer Passion, are involved with other men. Why did you choose to complicate your characters' lives in this fashion?
Dar Tomlinson: Hmmm… Complication begets conflict. Conflict begets engaging writing. But there are other reasons. My novels are realistic, some people call them "cutting edge." In that vein, I'd say my heroines' age is a factor. They are mature women living productive lives within the so-called marketplace, which makes involvement with a man realistic. Also, going from a less than satisfactory to a fulfilling relationship allows my heroines to undergo change, a profitable and enjoyable experience for them and the reader. Setting the heroine up with a less than heroic male in the beginning creates an even stronger, more appealing hero as his own honorable characteristics unfold. Shall I go on? [Smiles.]
Crescent Blues: How do you get into the head of someone whose race, culture and experience so differs from your own?
Dar Tomlinson: Thus far, we could add gender to the list. When I attended Taos School of Writing, I was required to submit a partial manuscript in order to be accepted. I submitted Broken, the Hemingway Award novel whose male protagonist is a Mexican shrimp fisherman. When I met my instructor for the first time, she expressed surprise, confessing she had expected me to be a man -- a Mexican man, judging from the way I'd gotten into Zac Abriendo's head.
I'm not sure how I do it. I like to think of it as a gift, but in my first four books, I dealt only with male characters with different ethnic and cultural backgrounds than mine, and I approached them just that way. As men. I know the environment in which people develop frames many of their characteristics -- we have only to look at generations of child abuse to prove that -- but beneath the passed-on characteristics, we are all male and female with the same desires, aspirations, hurts and joys. I endeavor to flavor my stories with cultural details and view my characters as God's basic creations, all alike beneath the skin.
Crescent Blues: How much do Forbidden Quest and Designer Passion derive from your own experience? (For example, did you call on your own interior design experience when you painted the portrait of Cally Sinclair?)
Dar Tomlinson: Of course! I loved my former profession -- interior design -- and love writing about it. The old cliche, "write what you know," also comes into play here. And it worked well, with Cally's being a designer and Paul Michael being an artiste, as he liked to call himself. It gave them the commonality they needed, that original spark that eventually ignited to help make them soul mates.
Crescent Blues: Do you draw on the places you live for your fictional locales? Is there really an antique store named Scrooge and Marley in Savannah?
Dar Tomlinson: Mostly I draw on places I love for my settings. That's just one more of the pleasures of being a writer. For instance the Hispanic/Anglo novels are set in Galveston, Texas, one of my favorite places on earth. I've always loved Savannah, a graceful part of this country's history. And, yes, Scrooge and Marley does grace one of the squares there.
Designer Passion, the second Genesis book, is set in the Denver area, which happens to be my summer habitat and the perfect place for the novel, since Holly is in the ski wear business. My work in progress is set in Scottsdale, Arizona where I spend winters, and on the Navajo Reservation in northern Arizona. I guess to sum it up, and pull the answer together, I either write about the places I live, those which I happen to love, or places I'd love to live.
Crescent Blues: How much did your high school romance with a Hispanic student influence your work?
Dar Tomlinson: A great deal. Through this relationship I learned so much from what my parents considered taboo -- not mixing the races, even for social purposes -- and came to grips with how much I disagreed with their philosophy. That set me up with enough material to keep my fingers racing on the keyboard for years to come.
Crescent Blues: To date, your books have featured white women with "two-color" men. Will future novels tackle the challenges faced by women of other races and nationalities?
Dar Tomlinson: Many of my readers, mostly the ones who are African-American, ask me the same thing. And yes…