In Celebration of Escapist Fantasy
I somehow managed to make it through high school without ever going on a date or kissing a boy. I feared at the time that I was too unattractive, essentially unappealing in some way I couldn’t put my finger on. My boobs were too small, maybe, or my hips were too big.
Now that I’m older and wiser, I suspect there was actually nothing wrong with me except that I was in high school, which blows regardless of who you are and how many boys ask you out. It also didn’t help that I had two older brothers who were friends with nearly the entirety of my potential dating pool.
It’s no coincidence that in high school I had a bottomless appetite for category romance. I craved the story it tells so well, again and again: flawed people find love. Men appreciate women for their bodies, yes, but also for their minds, their character, their essential selves. Women appreciate men for these same reasons. Lonely people find each other. Happy endings are possible.
It’s such a reassuring message. And I was smart enough to know then — just as every reader of romance I’ve ever met is smart enough to know now — that real life rarely works precisely like a romance novel. It is possible, even likely, that one’s real-life Mr. Right will not have six-pack abs, or that he won’t be capable of intuiting the Path to Multiple Orgasms the first time you ever climb into bed with him, or that he’ll be disinclined to confess his every tortured thought and reveal the secrets of his heart to you at the precise moment you want him to.
Which is to say, I knew the difference between life and fiction. I mean, duh. I read a lot of fiction. Of course I knew the difference.
But I also knew the power of fiction to transport me, to buoy me and comfort me and remind me of truths I needed to be reminded of.
I was fourteen, I was lonely, and romance helped. A lot.
Once I went to college, I left romance behind for several years. But when I was in grad school, I went to live in London for nine months, and it was an isolating experience. I was there to do historical research, so I lived in a small flat with a roommate who didn’t seem to like me much, and I spent forty hours a week in archives, taking notes on my laptop and talking to nobody except, occasionally, a friendly coat-check man. I spent another twelve or fourteen hours a week on trains, moving from place to place. I took up running. I went on weekend excursions. But there were still hours and hours to fill, and I checked about a dozen books out of the library every week. I rediscovered romance, as well as chick lit.
Those books helped.
While I was still in London, a male friend of mine came to visit, and the next thing I knew I had a boyfriend. Then I had a husband. Then I had a Ph.D., a new city, a new job, a new life. I set the romance novels aside for a while. I didn’t need them.
Then I had a son.
When my son was eight months old, he was supposed to be sleeping through the night. Everybody said so. Instead, he was waking up six, seven, eight times every night. He had to be nursed and bounced back to sleep on a giant ball. I hadn’t slept for more than three hours in two hundred and fifty days.
To make matters worse, he wouldn’t nap for more than thirty minutes straight unless you held him in your arms or hovered over his crib, waited for him to stir, and then resettled him with shushing and bouncing and songs.
I know this is ridiculous. I know. But I was strung-out and desperate and so, so tired.
That’s when I downloaded a free six-pack of books from Harlequin.
You see where this is going, right? After I finished those books, I bought one romance after another after another after another. They made me feel better, but in a different way this time. This time, I needed the purity of the escape. I craved the simplicity of the journey from meet-cute to ecstasy to disaster to happily-ever-after. I was a wreck. I needed an out, and I needed it badly, yet I hardly ever left the house, and when I did, there was this baby who needed to be brought along. I disappeared down the rabbit hole of romance novels and emerged revived.
(Sleep training also helped.)
That was in 2009. In the fall of 2010, I started writing my first romance novel. I sold that book the following July. I’ve published more than half a dozen since.
My relationship to romance has evolved a lot, both as a reader and a writer, but what strikes me looking back is what a positive thing romance has been for me at times in my life when I needed it. It is unfair on a lot of different metrics for people who don’t read the romance genre to mock it as an escapist fantasy. It’s sexist and condescending. But it’s also unfair because there is absolutely nothing wrong with escapist fantasy.
For the person who needs to escape, it’s a gift of incalculable value.
Barbara Samuel’s THE SLEEPING NIGHT is a beautiful blend of contemporary and historical.
I love the complex, multilayered contemporary worldbuilding in Molly O’Keefe’s (8/8) WILD CHILD and Mary Ann Rivers’s Burnside series, the first two novels of which are LIVE and LAUGH.
Questions for the Author:
Describe the most daring, adventurous or inspiring thing you ever did.
Most of the daring things I’ve done have ended badly — cliff diving into a river and bruising my tailbone comes to mind — but I would say that my nine months living in England to do dissertation research was adventurous. I learned a lot about myself and what I require to thrive.
Tell us about your journey to becoming a writer. (How did you decide to get started? Did you always know or was there a specific moment when you knew?)
I talk a little bit about this in my essay, but the simple version of the story is that I liked to write when I was a girl but didn’t feel as I got older that I had any fictional stories I wanted to tell. I had this idea that writers walk around with stories in their heads, and since my head didn’t contain stories, that was that. What changed things was reading a lot of category romance after my son was born — so much that I began to see that the structure of category romance was something I could hang a story on. All I needed, then, was a seed of an idea, and I could take that seed and plant it in the category romance structure and see what grew. Over time, I came to understand that all a writer needs is the seed of an idea. What writing is all about, for me, is taking that seed and nurturing it into a book by asking one question after another of the idea.
Tell us about The (or A) Book That Changed Your Life. (Why?)
The first romance novel I ever read, Warm Fuzzies by Joan Eliott Pickart, introduced me to the genre that has given me so much enjoyment and comfort, and has also led me into a career I’m not sure I’d have found otherwise.
Ruthie Knox is generously giving away two signed copies of HARDER by Robin York (her New Adult romance alter ego), one for U.S. readers (entry below) and one for the international drawing (enter here).
New York Times bestselling author Ruthie Knox writes contemporary romance that’s sexy, witty, and angsty — sometimes all three at once. After training to be a British historian, she became an academic editor instead. Then she got really deeply into knitting, as one does, followed by motherhood and romance novel writing.
Her debut novel, Ride with Me, is probably the only existing cross-country bicycling love story. She followed it up with About Last Night, a London-set romance whose hero has the unlikely name of Neville, and then Room at the Inn, a Christmas novella—both of which were finalists for the Romance Writers of America’s RITA Award. Her four-book series about the Clark family of Camelot, Ohio, has won accolades for its fresh, funny portrayal of small-town Midwestern life.
Ruthie moonlights as a mother, Tweets incessantly, and bakes a mean focaccia. She’d love to hear from you, so visit her website at www.ruthieknox.com and drop her a line.
Buy Ruthie’s Books: