Kathleen E. Woodiwiss, 68; romance novelist

Times Staff Writer

Kathleen E. Woodiwiss, known as the mother of the modern romance novel for books such as “The Flame and the Flower” and “Forever in Your Embrace” that helped redefine the romantic fiction genre, has died. She was 68.

Woodiwiss, whose first 12 novels have sold more than 30 million copies, died July 6 at a hospital near her home in Princeton, Minn., her publisher, Avon Books, announced on its website. The cause was cancer.

Her final book, “Everlasting,” will be published this fall.

“Kathleen Woodiwiss was the first author to write flat-out romance novels,” in which “a commitment between a man and a woman is the plot,” said Carrie Feron, editorial director of Avon Books, in an interview with The Times this week.


Before Woodiwiss’ first novel, “The Flame and the Flower,” was published in 1972, romance fiction was wrapped around suspense or gothic tales. The romance part was demure and suggestive, the books relatively short.

In developing a new category, Woodiwiss crafted more complex plots with somewhat controversial relationships. Her stories twist and turn for 500 pages or more before their happy endings.

“Kathleen’s books focus on the relationship between a heroine and a hero,” said Nicole Kennedy, a spokeswoman for the Romance Writers of America, in an interview with The Times. “Until Kathleen came along, there was nothing like it out there.”

A number of Woodiwiss’ titles, including “Ashes in the Wind” (1979), raced to the top of the New York Times paperback bestsellers list.

She set her dramas against Medieval England, colonial America and other familiar backgrounds and wrote sex scenes in such complete detail that she became known as a pioneer of the “erotic historical” novel. She didn’t appreciate it.

“I’m insulted when my books are called erotic,” Woodiwiss said in a 1978 interview with Cosmopolitan magazine. “I write love stories, with a little spice.”

One of Woodiwiss’ typical heroines, Erienne Fleming, is beautiful, kind and adventuresome. She is the leading lady in “A Rose in Winter” (1982), which was excerpted in Good Housekeeping magazine.

In one scene Erienne waits at home to receive “yet another unwelcome suitor” as “the roiling chaos of dark clouds” churn overhead, Woodiwiss wrote.


Finally, Erienne does meet a man she finds irresistible, the dashing Christopher Seton. They waste no time getting to know each other.

“In the next instant his lips moved hungrily over hers, stirring feelings that threatened to sweep her away,” Woodiwiss wrote.

An arranged marriage to Lord Saxton, who wears a mask at all times, works out surprisingly well for Erienne until Seton reenters her life. Then, she must choose.

“These books are fairy tales,” Woodiwiss said in a 1983 interview with People magazine. “They are an escape for the reader, like an Errol Flynn movie.”


Born Kathleen Erin Hogg, June 3, 1939, in Alexandria, La., she was the youngest of eight children. At a sock hop when she was 16 she met Ross Woodiwiss, a second lieutenant in the Air Force. They eloped a year later.

The couple had three sons. Woodiwiss started writing novels as a stay-at-home mother. “There were always dishes to put in the dishwasher,” she said in a 1979 interview with the New York Times.

After living in Japan and Kansas, Woodiwiss and her family settled on a 100-acre farm called Tanglewood Manor in Princeton, Minn. Her survivors include her sons Sean and Heath, as well as numerous grandchildren. Her son Dorren died last month. Ross Woodiwiss died in 1996.

“I never set out to give anyone a ‘message,’ ” Woodiwiss said of her novels in a recent interview posted on her website. “My desire has always been to entertain my readers.”