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Embracing the Romance Novel

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Harold Lowry never got around to seeing “As Good as It Gets,” James L. Brooks’ Oscar-winning romantic comedy. You’d think he would have, simply out of professional curiosity.

Like Jack Nicholson’s misanthropic Melvin Udall character, Lowry is that rarity of the publishing industry: a man who writes romance novels.

But Lowry has been too busy writing romances to go to the movies. He wrote three last year. “I did an extra book for Silhouette, and it just tied me to the chair,” said Lowry, 56, of Charlotte, N.C.

The former high school music teacher has written 20 historical and contemporary romances, but don’t look under “Lowry” to find them. Lowry writes under the gender-neutral name Leigh Greenwood.

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He is among 1,600 professional and aspiring writers, literary agents and publishing executives in Anaheim this week for the 18th annual Romance Writers of America National Conference.

Romance fiction now generates about $1 billion per year in sales in the United States, up from $855 million in 1992. Last year, 2,700 romance titles were published. And there’s no lack of readers to gobble them up. Fifty-three percent of all mass market paperback books sold in the United States are romance fiction.

Nearly all of their readers are women, as are the writers. Of 300 romance writers signing books at the conference, only two were men.

The mega book-signing session came on the eve of the four-day conference, which began Thursday at the Anaheim Hilton & Towers. The session, which is raising money for national and local literacy programs, was promoted locally this week during afternoon television soap operas.

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The result: More than 1,000 romance fans--virtually all of them women--filled a cavernous ballroom where row upon row of book-laden tables were set up.

With the exception of the husband-and-wife writing team of Jim and Nikoo McGoldrick of Philadelphia, who write as May McGoldrick, Lowry was the only male writer at the tables.

Lowry, conservatively dressed in a gray-green suit and with the dignified air of a church choir director (which he once was) was there for his fans--chatting it up and scrawling “Best wishes” or “Happy reading” in copies of “Buck” and “Ward,” the latest in his “Cowboys” series of historical romances.

Some fans were surprised to discover that Leigh Greenwood is a lanky 6-foot-3 man with thinning hair and a trim mustache. Others knew.

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Lila Lubak, a 70-year-old fan from Corona who has read 10 of Lowry’s historical romances, discovered that Leigh Greenwood was a man only a couple of weeks ago, when a bookseller friend informed her.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Lubak said, looking at Lowry/Greenwood. “I thought he was a woman writing them. Sorry.”

Lowry looked up from signing her book and laughed.

“No problem,” he said. “You’re supposed to think that.”

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Lowry chose his pen name after going through a list “of all the androgynous names I could find.” He knew he couldn’t use his real name.

“The industry won’t let you,” he said. “It’s sort of like [a man] buying an action-adventure novel by Annette or Phyllis. It just won’t go.”

An estimated 45 million women in North America--and a small but unknown number of men--read romance novels, according to Harlequin Enterprises, the largest publisher of romances. Some fans read as many as 14 a month.

Romance Writers of America has grown along with the popularity of the steamy, often critically maligned literary genre.

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Founded in Houston in 1980 by 37 charter members, the national nonprofit writers association has grown to more than 8,000 members and 160 chapters.

Among this year’s workshop offerings: “Crafting the Perfect Hero: It Takes More Than a Million Bucks, a Stetson and Some Tight-Fitting Jeans” and “Writing Safer Sex,” a session on researching vintage birth control methods in order to depict more accurate love scenes in historical romances.

The highlight of the conference is the RITAS, the Romance Writers of America’s answer to the Oscars. The black-tie awards ceremony Saturday night is named after the group’s first president, Rita Clay Estrada.

Keynote speaker Julie Garwood, who has had 15 of her 17 historical romance novels reach the New York Times paperback bestseller list, has a simple theory as to why romance novels generate so much reader passion.

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“I think a happy ending and a story that’s a relationship story that’s uplifting, there’s always an appeal for that,” she said.

That’s not to say romances haven’t evolved over the heated market of the past 18 years.

Romance Writers of America president Olivia Hall, who writes under the name Laurie Paige, says readers today want heroines who are strong women who take charge of their lives.

The days when a young heroine went off to the Amazon to find her long-lost brother, uncle, father or fiance and must then be saved by the handsome hero are long over, said Hall, a former computer engineer at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

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“Modern women don’t want to be saved,” she said. “We can take the consequences of our actions.” But, she added with a laugh, “we still like it when the hero sweeps us off our feet.”

Romance fan Abbie Mercado, for one, doesn’t buy into the new sensitive heroes of the ‘90s. The 62-year-old Costa Mesa resident, who owns 11,000 historical romances, prefers the earlier romantic heroes of the ‘70s and ‘80s, a time when “they were more self-centered, rough-and-ready-type men.

“I sort of like the kick-butt approach.”

One thing that hasn’t changed much is the number of men who write romances.

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Men make up less than 1% of membership in Romance Writers of America. In fact, Lowry is one of fewer than 10 men in the group who are published romance authors.

“Not all of us have come out of the closet, so to speak,” Lowry said. “A lot of the men that are writing are writing with their wives or another woman. There’s not that many writing [romances] by themselves.”

Lowry said he wasn’t even aware of romance novels until the mid-1970s when he began examining his wife Anne’s stash of paperbacks. He recalls making “nasty” comments about their “bodice-ripper” covers.

“I hadn’t read them, you have to understand; I was making those comments in total ignorance.” Finally, his wife told him, “You have to read one or shut up.”

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So he read Georgette Hayer’s “These Old Shades.”

“I loved it; it’s a great book,” said Lowry, who wound up reading all of Hayer’s books.

He was so inspired by his new reading habit that he tried writing in 1983. After two failed attempts, he sold “Wyoming Wildfire,” in 1987.

Historical romances were a natural for Lowry. “I was a history minor in college; that’s something I really enjoyed,” he said.

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Lowry believes that one reason male romance writers are such a rarity is the “social stigma attached to a man writing romance.”

“It’s sort of like the ‘real men don’t eat quiche’ idea. I think men basically do like action stories as opposed to romance.”

Lowry said friends and family are “very tolerant” of his new career, though not all are fans of his books.

His mother has read only one title.

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“She’s a very strict Baptist,” he said. The one she did read was a pirate story, “The Captain’s Caress.” “Of all the books, that one had more sex than any I’ve ever written. That just upset her to no end.”

Lowry said he is often asked how he is able to write from a female point of view.

“I say I don’t understand that question because they never ask the women, ‘How do you write the man’s point of view?’ And women have been doing that all along. In any romance, it’s told from the man’s and woman’s point of view. My feeling is if a woman can do that, why can’t a man do it?”


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