|Robin Lee Hatcher: Inspirational Commitment|
Between the sexual tension and passionate interludes, a reader might lose track of the fact that, ultimately, every romance sings the praises of commitment. But a true romance writer never does. Just ask Romance Writers of America (RWA) 2001 Lifetime Achievement Award winner Robin Lee Hatcher.
Twenty years ago, Hatcher committed herself to turning her passion for reading into a career in writing. In the 1990s, in the midst of a flourishing mainstream romance career, this former RWA president made a new commitment -- to write books that reflected her spirituality and faith. On the eve of the release of Ribbon of Years, an inspirational women's novel spanning more than 60 years, Hatcher talked to Crescent Blues about what it takes to carry out that kind of commitment -- and the rewards for succeeding.
Robin Lee Hatcher: I'd been out on a date with my husband (to see Shrek and then to dinner). When I got home, I had a voice mail message from Harold Lowry. Back in March, I'd heard that the winner wasn't to be announced until June 18th, so I thought it was for something totally unrelated to the Lifetime Achievement Award. I called him back. Luckily, I was sitting in my desk chair when he gave me the news.
Crescent Blues: What was your first reaction?
Robin Lee Hatcher: "Color me stunned," is how I described it to friends. I was in complete shock. All my money was riding on one of the other nominees. That I might actually win the award had always seemed utterly impossible. I'm completely humbled, knowing the members have bestowed such an honor upon me.
Crescent Blues: What prompted you to change your focus from mainstream romance to inspirational fiction?
Robin Lee Hatcher:
The short answer is: God prompted it, and I followed my heart.
Crescent Blues: Was the transition quick or gradual?
Robin Lee Hatcher: It was gradual. I had a lot of things to learn and a lot of things to change in both my personal and professional lives.
I first felt the tug on my heart in 1991 when I read Francine Rivers' book, Redeeming Love. There was so much power and truth in that book that I yearned to create something equally as powerful, but I wasn't ready. I can look back now and see how each step in the process was carefully orchestrated, even though I wasn't aware of it. Even in early 1997, if asked if I intended to write anything other than historical romance, I answered, "No." But by the fall of that year, I had a three-book contract with WaterBrook Press and was writing my first contemporary inspirational novel for them.
Crescent Blues: Which of your books do you feel mark the major milestones in your literary journey to where you are now?
Robin Lee Hatcher: First, Where the Heart Is. I wrote that book right after I analyzed my strengths and weaknesses as a writer, and realized that my strengths were better showcased in Americana settings.
Second, Patterns of Love. When it was published, I was told by several people (writers and editors) that it was an inspirational. Written in 1996 and published in 1998, it was apparent to others that I was being drawn toward the Christian market more and more.
Third, The Forgiving Hour. I had so many fears and insecurities going into that project, but the process of simply trusting God to see me through was a great lesson in obedience.
Fourth, my new novel, Ribbon of Years, although it's difficult to say why. I just think there is something "special" about this book. (It doesn't hurt that it has the best cover I've ever had on a book.)
Crescent Blues: What inspired your decision to change three of your mainstream historical romances, Dear Lady, Patterns of Love, and In His Arms, into romances for the inspirational market?
Robin Lee Hatcher: Actually, the publisher (Zondervan) came to me. As I stated above, my heart was already being drawn toward the Christian Booksellers Association (CBA) market at the time I was writing this series of romances for Harper, and Zondervan saw the potential and believed these would be excellent books for their readers. In truth, I didn't have to do much rewriting before they were released by Zondervan, and they've sold strongly. At this writing, the first two books have already gone back to press twice.
Crescent Blues: What did you find to be the most interesting aspects of the rewrites?
Robin Lee Hatcher: First, the process revealed how much I've changed as a writer. I probably did much more self-editing in craft issues than I did in actual content changes. But even with only light rewrites, the process took much longer than I'd anticipated.
Crescent Blues: What distinguishes an inspirational romance from a mainstream romance? Can the same book succeed in both markets?
Robin Lee Hatcher: First of all, allow me to distinguish that who I'm writing for and what I'm most familiar with is the CBA market. Many books could be deemed inspirational while not being Christian. So in my answers above and below, when I speak of inspirationals, I am referring to books with Christian content.
Basically, a mainstream romance contains two plot threads: the internal (emotional) plot and the external (action) plot. The inspirational romance has those same two plot threads and then adds a third: the faith plot. These three plot threads must be intricately woven together. If a writer can remove the faith plot and the story still holds together, then the book isn't truly an inspirational.
Yes, books can succeed in both markets. Look at the phenomenal success of the Left Behind series (initial print run of 3 million copies for the newest book in the series). Look at the Mitford series by Jan Karon, also hitting the New York Times list. Probably the biggest reason more inspirational novels don't succeed in both markets is that mainstream bookstores tend to shelve the fiction in the religion section, intermingled with non-fiction, rather than in their fiction section. Fiction readers don't see the inspirational novels because they're looking for books in the fiction section.
Crescent Blues: How does the mainstream market differ from/compare to the inspirational market? Does it encompass the same genres, for example? How do the specs differ in a general sense?
Robin Lee Hatcher: CBA fiction is still very much in its youth. At one time, books such as Ben-Hur and The Robe and The Silver Chalice (all made into movies) were published by mainstream New York publishers. The CBA primarily published non-fiction books and Bibles. The main exceptions to the rule were "end times" and "prairie" fiction. Then in the 1990s, things began to change. Today, readers are able to find just about anything that will fit their reading tastes: mysteries, suspense, romance, women's fiction, legal and medical thrillers, Biblical fiction, sci-fi, speculative/futuristic, etc.
Crescent Blues: Your 1999 novel, The Forgiving Hour seems to have done exceptionally well, even among readers who might not normally read inspirational fiction. What aspects of this novel appear to resonate most among your readers?
Robin Lee Hatcher: The subject matter (adultery) is all too familiar to people in today's world. No matter how liberal our society becomes, the truth is that adultery is a heartbreaking betrayal for the spouse and for the children. Reaching a place of forgiveness, letting go of the bitterness that can infect hearts and minds, is often a long and difficult journey.
What surprised me
was how many readers wrote to me that they were bitter over something
totally unrelated to an unfaithful spouse, and they said this book helped
show them that they needed to forgive whoever had hurt them and move on
with their lives.
Crescent Blues: Are these the same elements that appealed to you about the story of Claire and Sara?
Robin Lee Hatcher: There was a great deal of me in The Forgiving Hour. My first husband had extramarital affairs, and God called on me in one case to go to the other woman and tell her she was forgiven. Many scenes, many words, in the book were straight out of my past. Fortunately for me, I was never trapped in a web of bitterness like Claire, but I've known so many women who are. So I guess what appealed to me was sharing, from a place of experience, that there is a way to be set free from that self-inflicted pain. (Self-inflicted because bitterness and unforgiveness rarely matters to the other person; it only hurts the person who is bitter and/or unforgiving.)
Crescent Blues: You mentioned that the book has been optioned for film. Who bought the rights?
Robin Lee Hatcher: Well, right now, the book has been orphaned. The producer who bought the option left the production company. Only God knows if it will ever become a movie.
Crescent Blues: Do you see your new novel, The Ribbon of Years, as a romance or as a step in a different direction?
Robin Lee Hatcher: As with The Forgiving Hour, I think there's an obvious love story between the protagonist and God. To me, this is the ultimate romance that life can offer, and all my other love stories (real and fiction) flow out of it.
Every book of mine is a new step, although not always in a different direction. I'm guided by the characters and not by trying to fit into any particular niche. That's been the real joy of writing women's fiction for the CBA. I've been given more freedom to create the books I long to create. It's been truly liberating.
Crescent Blues: Was there a special significance in the name you chose for the heroine in Ribbon of Years -- Miriam?
Robin Lee Hatcher: I can't remember ever picking a name for a character because of what a name means. I pick the names because they "seem right" for the characters. It's something I just know instinctively. But after the fact, I often discover that a name was more fitting than I knew it would be. The Biblical Miriam of Exodus led the freed nation of Israel in worship and praise of God. I suppose that would have significance for my Miriam's life of faith. She trusts and praises God even in the midst of life's hardships.
Crescent Blues: Do the dates of the major events in Miriam's life reflect your areas of historical interest or did you choose them to reflect the major crossroads of the 20th century?
Robin Lee Hatcher: The former, to a degree. One of my favorite parts is the portion set in 1944. I've written about the World War II years before, and I'm sure I'll return there again in another book. I love the music, the clothes, and so much more about this period in history. But the majority of the time settings were dictated more by the progression of the story and the age of Miriam and/or the age of her son, than because of any historical interest in a particular year on my part.
It was both interesting and challenging to follow a life across such a long expanse of time (1936 to 2001). Every decade had to be researched, so there was a lot of stopping and starting. I loved that Publishers Weekly said I handled the changes in time "with aplomb." It was certainly what I hoped to achieve.
Crescent Blues: Most romances take place over a limited time period. What were the special challenges of writing a "letter of recommendation" for Miriam's choices over a span of 65 years?
Robin Lee Hatcher: One of the challenges had to do with the lingo of the different decades, accompanied by the aging of my main character. I had to do some major mental shifts with each new part.
Robin Lee Hatcher: I don't have a clue how to answer this. I write "from the gut" and don't analyze what is telling or showing. I write what feels right.
I've always been an instinctive writer. While I do read how-to and other craft books, I never turn around and try to apply what I've read to my books in a conscious manner. It is much more subconscious. For instance, when I read The Writer's Journey, I found myself thinking, "I do that" or "Oh, such-and-such character in The Forgiving Hour was a threshold guardian." But I absolutely freeze up if I set out to consciously create a character that is a threshold guardian. I can't force my writing in that way.
Crescent Blues: What are the rules of inspirational fiction?