Swimming in the Mainstream
A genre isn't a life sentence. Just ask Patricia Gaffney, who took off the "mask" of her romance persona after 12 much loved historical romances -- many of them nominated for the genre's top awards -- to write mainstream novels about contemporary women.
Gaffney's fans followed her into this brave new world confident the complex, appealing characters that marked Gaffney's historicals would shine as brightly in the present as they did in the past. After all, Gaffney made similar leaps before -- from 18th century London to the Chinatown of pre-1908 San Francisco to a 19th century Cornish mining village. Shortly before she embarked on her promotional tour for Circle of Three, Gaffney talked to Crescent Blues about the evolution of her career, the care and feeding of reader expectations, and how she really, usually, identifies more with her heroines.
Crescent Blues: Your current release (and second mainstream novel), Circle of Three, features three generations of women. Especially vivid is the matriarch of the group, Dana Danziger. Was Dana modeled on a particular person or is she a synthesis?
Patricia Gaffney: Do you think Dana is especially vivid? I thought Ruth, the mixed-up teenage daughter, was more colorful. Certainly she was the easiest to write. And I felt closest to Ruth, since I am often about 15 years old in my emotional maturity.
What was the question?
Oh, Dana. Well, to the extent she's modeled on my mother, God love her, it's in her southernness, her bluntness, her absolute certainty she knows what's best for her daughter -- well, for everybody -- and her constant and unconditional love.
Crescent Blues: How close does Dana come to your own vision of yourself as an older woman?
Patricia Gaffney: Dana -- like my mother -- is terrified of getting old. I'm not wild about the idea myself, so it's not hard to imagine getting drunk on my 70th birthday and insulting all my loved ones. I just hope when I'm Dana's age I'm more at peace with my lot, and past blaming other people for my dissatisfactions. I know I've made better life decisions.
Dana made a serious mistake early -- she married for security instead of love -- and paid for it ever after. But she's strong and tough, and one of her saving graces is that (except for that 70th birthday party) she never feels sorry for herself. In the end, she's reconciled to the rest of her life, finally achieving the closeness she's been wanting with her daughter -- if not her inattentive husband -- and by no means giving up on the possibility of change.
Crescent Blues: What prompts you to use a particular person as a model for a character? How does this process compare with developing a character from whole cloth? Do you find it easier or harder?
Patricia Gaffney: Before The Saving Graces, I rarely based characters on real people, at least not consciously. (Don't tell my husband; I told him he was the hero of all my romances.) Meraud in Lily, the old "witch" who lived alone on Dartmoor -- I modeled her after Cottie Herndon, my landlady in graduate school. Other than Meraud, though, most of my historical romance characters came straight -- or twisted -- from my imagination.
The four women in The Saving Graces, on the other hand, were "inspired," as they say, by friends, real people. They're not verbatim translations, not by a long shot, but similarities can't be denied.
Easier or harder? I'm not sure. Even if you're brilliant at inventing characters (and I'm not), the ones based on people you know are probably richer because they're more complicated, they do contradictory things, their behaviors are more complex. But complex, contradictory, complicated characters aren't always what you want. Sometimes the smoothing-out process of pure fiction -- the (less fertile) imagination versus bumpy, messy reality -- makes your theme clearer or your pace faster.
Art is not life, and real people don't make book sense. When I write a novel, I've got an agenda; I'm trying to tell you something. I might put in a character who acts an awful lot like my Uncle Jack, but there's going to come a time in the book when what Jack would do doesn't mesh with my agenda, and that's when I stop being true to Uncle Jack and start inventing.
Crescent Blues: You've mentioned that Isabel in Saving Graces was modeled on a friend who died of breast cancer. How did the other members of the women's support group to which you both belonged react to your tribute?
Patricia Gaffney: Well, you know, we weren't a support group in the beginning, we were just a group. Support was the last thing on our minds when we had our first meeting back in May of '79. We were young and carefree, healthy and immortal; support groups were for survivors of this or that catastrophe. We just ate and drank and gossiped.
Years passed. We became a support group.
The woman we lost, "Isabel" in The Saving Graces, was a lovely, wonderful friend. For years, long before her illness, the group had been telling me I ought to "write a book about us." When I finally did, they were honestly thrilled. I took many liberties with the literal truth, but apparently I got the main thing right -- our friendship.
Crescent Blues: Circle of Three and its mainstream predecessor, Saving Graces, paint the years between 35 and 50 as ones of particular power for women and men -- a time of change and renewal. What do you see as the well-spring of this mid-life courage?
Patricia Gaffney: I'm not trying to make a statement in my books about any particular demographic, but that's an interesting question. Those of us who came into adulthood over the last few decades have probably lived through more changes than any generation before, and that experience might build new personal resources, provide a "well-spring of mid-life courage." Or it might not. From the standpoint of fiction, I've certainly found that writing about women over 30 is a lot more interesting than writing about 20-year-old virgins. But that could just be me getting old.
Crescent Blues: How much do your mainstream novels Circle of Three and Saving Graces reflect personal experience? What are some of the challenges of working in the framework of "real life" as opposed to the "fantasy" of your earlier romances? And do you ever miss the fantasy?
Patricia Gaffney: I do miss the fantasy sometimes. The trouble with writing about "real life" is that not nearly as many interesting things happen. Where are the horse races? The kidnappings, the sword fights? Where are the pirates? I love a good amnesia story. Terms of the will, secret baby, stolen bride -- mainstream fiction disdains these contrivances. So it makes me wistful to think that I'll never be able to deal with them again.
Well, I'm joking. I do miss a few over-the-top aspects of genre fiction, but it's a trade-off. Now I get to write dialogue as I hear it, the way my contemporaries really speak it. As a narrator, I don't have to take on a persona anymore, I can pretty much be myself -- that's liberating. Writing is self-expression, and I express myself more fluently and more honestly now that I've taken off the "mask" I wore as a romance writer. Off with the conventions, on with something closer to the truth of my own life.
Crescent Blues: Saving Graces explores the reactions of four friends to crisis. Circle of Three focuses on a watershed year in the lives of three generations of women. And you've described the next novel in the group as love story, which would appear to concentrate on two people. What was the intent behind this progressive narrowing of focus?
Patricia Gaffney: But that's too literal a way to see the progression -- four, three, two. (Besides, if that's way things are going, the next book will have to be about a hermit.) All the books -- you'll have to take my word for the third, which I've just started -- have ensemble casts. It's true, there were four Saving Graces, and there were three primary women characters in Circle of Three. But I don't think the focus narrowed significantly in the second book, and I know it won't in the third. Which brings me to your next question --
Crescent Blues: Would you care to tell our readers something about your next book? Does it signal a return to the romance genre?
Patricia Gaffney: I wish I could tell you the title, but I don't have one yet. Will it be a romance? No, but it'll be much more of a love story than either of the last two. It's so hard to talk about a work in progress -- I've just started four different sentences trying to explain what this book is going to be about. Love, bad timing, loneliness, pride, family. It's set against a backdrop of a busy Italian restaurant in downtown Washington, D.C. -- a favorite setting for me, because it's the only big city I really know. Large cast of characters. Everybody's got heart troubles. Hero's a bird photographer. That's the best I can do!
Crescent Blues: This year, Dorchester Publishing will re-issue a number of your early romances, including your first, Sweet Treason. How well do you feel those books hold up today? Knowing what you know now about writing and the market, is there anything about those books you wish you could change?
Patricia Gaffney: Yes, Dorchester reissued my first five books, Sweet Treason, Fortune's Lady, Thief of Hearts, Lily, and Another Eden. I can't bring myself to reread any of them, so I can't answer your fascinating question with any authority. I loved them all when I wrote them. I mean I loved them. I expect they've held up as well as most ten-year-old historical romances, and I'm quite sure there are large chunks in all of them that would make me hide and quake under a blanket if I read them. Which is why I make it a point not to read them. I do think the quality of my work took a quantum leap when I moved to Penguin and began writing for Audrey LaFehr, who's a fabulous editor. Plus I just got better -- more experienced, more confident, less tied to the conventions.
Crescent Blues: What prompted you to start writing romance?
Patricia Gaffney: I've wanted to be a writer since I was about eight years old, but I didn't have the courage to try -- too afraid of failing -- until the day I found a lump in my breast. They gave me a 70 percent chance of surviving but, not being an optimist, I seized on the 30 percent chance of dying. Quick, time to decide what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.
I was stuck in a job I didn't love: court reporting. It was easy and it paid well, but it hadn't challenged me in years. If I ever wanted to write, it looked like now or never. Besides, what was the worst that could happen? I might write a bad book, maybe an embarrassingly bad book -- but so what? By the time it came out, I'd be dead! A win-win.
Next decision: what kind of book did I want to try to write? Fortunately, I had another life-changing realization around this time….