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Books Wed Apr 30 2014

Chicago Romance Novelists Tease and Titillate

lady-of-winter-_bg_042.jpg"It's hard not to think about other things," she said. We're exposing ourselves, she had mentioned, and the other women had laughed. Their husbands had laughed, too, maybe a bit less emphatically. They've certainly noticed each other, being five, in total; and they are certainly husbands, though one wiry twenty-something had been standing in a corner with his hands in his pockets, slouching like a deflated Fabio in a graphic tee. He had the hair, though. He looked hungry where these husbands looked proud, and careful.

"We're exposing ourselves..." began Shannyn Shcroeder, author and the night's organizer. "Exposing" got a laugh. Shannyn couldn't help herself. "It's hard not to think about other things." She's right about that. In general, since grade school, it's hard not to think about other things. But we were all sitting in the company of Chicago's premiere romance novelists. We were looking for other things. Regardless, Shannyn shook her head, "it doesn't have to be body parts! It could be secrets." This elicited a laugh, as well; it's true that not all romance writing is lusty members and taut buttocks, but Sheffield's had a playful tension that no one could call tame. It wasn't the barbeque, though the wait staff didn't quite know what to do.

"Shots?" they whispered. The bartender poured Jameson into three glasses. "Cheers," they mumbled, and made a broad gesture of discretion before gently throwing back their necks.

An earnest MC took the small stage and announced a few rounds of earnest romance novel Bingo (only one was scheduled, but it went by so quickly a second round was demanded - all the cards were the same). Instead of numbers there was a five-by-five grid of the sexy men and pearl necklaces that graced the covers of each authors' novels.

"Great cover," someone murmured.

"Lots of man chest." Laughter. The authors do not choose their own covers. They come to publishers with ideas and are often present at the photo shoots, but rarely do they have a say.

"Honey, how old are you?" asked Julie Ann Walker, at one such photo shoot. "19," he replied. The room groaned. She nodded knowingly and seemed to wink at the husbands present. "Of course only a 19-year-old has abs like that."

Next were readings from each published author. The atmosphere of the optimistically titled "Spring Into Love With Chicago's Romance Authors" (it's snowing in April) was like a modestly-sized sleepover. There was a conspiratorial edge to pronouncements of each author's style and personality, a bit of a hierarchy between published and debut authors that felt like the sort of sniping and smiling begrudging that goes on between eager underclassmen and their wise contemporaries.

"I don't have an assistant," declared Sonali Dev, who began writing romance novels after her first grey hair appeared. Adrienne Giordano and Julie Ann exchanged knowing glances that doubled as scoffs. "Once you sell, you're on deadline," said Kate Meader. "Take as much time as you want on that first book..." She trails off as if to prove her point. Being a romance novelist is like being a small business, selling oneself. Nobody snickers at this double entendre.

It seemed to me that the romance novel was the catch-all of a distinctly heroine-based genre, rather than a distinctly trashy or accessible one. Authors write what they want, in most cases (though Harlequin romance, among others, has a very specific brand that doesn't fit for many of the authors I heard read at Sheffield's).

Julie Ann Walker warned (or invited) before her reading, "there will be nipples involved!" A glance at the microphone, coupled with a certain bemused smile, was enough to lubricate the audience.

Julie Ann's selection was eloquent and coy. The heroine, boldly sexual, remarks at one point that "if it wouldn't have ruined the mood, she would have pumped the fist." Julie Ann demonstrates. "Heavy pectoral muscles," and "wonderfully crooked noses" though expected details, are rendered in a conversational and semantically aware prose that rides along smoothly like a backpack Henry Miller.

Kate Meader, on the other hand, is literally a sexy librarian. She has a bachelor's in law ("useless", her website declares), a master's in history ("not-as-useless") and another master's in library and information sciences ("yay, using!").

Her excerpt was a sexualized childbirth scene. The soon-to-be mother imagined her husband longing at her "ballooned" and sensitive breasts, "visible from the International Space Station". I described this in my notes as a "sexy-surprising" pregnancy. Some clever allusions were made; to silent screaming, pushing, the second reader, Kate was diversifying, to say the least. With no facetiousness, I began to see the niche and clich├ęs I expected expand before my eyes. Crown, if you will.

Jennifer Stevenson took the stage with the promise to "find new uses for old sex demons." I didn't know what this meant, and still don't, but her cathartic and violently sexual reading centered around a "slacker demon" whose tongue is large enough to attack two nipples at once. His "Greek sledgehammer" came out only after an elongated, inspired sequence wherein a tiny woman is dipped into a lobster pot full of dark chocolate and licked clean. Or dirty, I suppose.

The romance novel's world is a world unconcerned with political correctness, describing work as "European-lite", or a dog as a "Buddy the Wheaton Terrorist"; its authors are highly educated, though - often in fields as diverse as architecture, communications and political science (not to mention, in Kate Meader's case alone, degrees in law, history and library sciences).

Their processes are diverse and self-aware. Sonali Dev ("super-mom", "domestic goddess" and "world traveler") tells nonsexual stories of true love and Indian culture. Remi Hunter, a tenured Chicago police officer, writes Windy City Heat, an opportunity, she says, to "be someone else." Adrienne Giordano uses screenplay structure to achieve an energized momentum; she's cofounded the Romance University Blog and a salon in Naperville that reminded me, typically, of Gertrude Stein's own gatherings. Shannyn Schroeder writes the O'Leary series, "contemporary romances" that center around a large Irish-American family in Chicago. There's romance in all, but the genre seems designed more for the sake of selling books rather than writing them. The freedom of expression on display is staggering, as well as the freedom from pretension and "literary" expectation.

Jennifer Stevenson, the night's most explicit reader (of the sex demons), spoke about her "phoned-in" heroines who slowly turn into "raging bitches" because "I would never be so stupid as to get into the situations they do." After writing "in order of explosions" she inevitably throws out the first 100 pages.

Kate Meader "fast-drafts", pounding out the first iteration of a story within weeks. They all spoke on Julie Ann Walker's hat. "What's with the hats?" asked an audience-member. "Do you wear it in the bedroom/when you write?"

Even with a hat, it was hard not to think of other things. It was easier to imagine these women living the lives of their heroines, under covers and behind automatic weapons, diverse and empowered as they were. It was harder to imagine them writing for 8 hours a day, as many of them do.

I walked out of Sheffield's with a copy of Kate Meader's "Hot in the Kitchen" series and a novel with prominent pearl-imagery on its cover. As I checked my dating profile at the bar, I wished that the openness and camaraderie I'd seen inside - double gin and tonics, dark chocolate and all - were on display here, in the palm of my hand.

There was something very 1984 about my OKCupid profile and its percentages, micro-rejections and mass-objectification. There was something undeniably modern about a group of female authors speaking about their preferred forms of empowerment, something very Anais Niin about these women of romance, secret Dostoyevsky's of Chicago, working through sex-demons between baked cookies and family dinners. Running s-corps and readings with "nipples involved."

I brushed past a familiar face down the bar and realized I'd swiped her "right" on Tinder. She hadn't swiped me back, I guess. Maybe if my nose was pressed between the pages of a romance novel instead of my iPhone, I thought. Maybe I'd give a better, more worldly impression of my interests. It would be hard, then, not to think of something else.

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