“So… what’s with the romance novels?”

Yes, it’s true. It sometimes astonishes my thriller readers, but I started off my writing career, years ago, as a romance author. At bookstore talks, when I happen to mention my early years as a Harlequin Intrigue writer, I sometimes hear giggles in the audience, as though I should be embarrassed about my sordid secret. But romance writing has its own challenges, its own difficulties, and anyone who thinks that they can make a quick buck writing one of those “little paperback romances” doesn”t know the first thing about the genre.

How did I end up writing romances in the first place?

I owe it all to one of my patients. I was a medical resident at the time, working eighty hours a week on a cardiac care rotation. My patient was a woman with chest pain, and she spent two days in the CCU while we ruled out a heart attack. On the day she left the hospital, she handed me a large paper sack and said, “I’ve finished reading all these. Maybe you’d like them.”

I looked in the bag. Inside were a dozen romance novels. Never in my life had I read a romance, and I planned to drop them off at my local Goodwill store. But during one of my spare moments on the ward, I happened to fish out one of the books and read the first few pages. Then I read a few more pages. Then I couldn’t put the damn thing down.

A week later, I’d read every book in that sack. Soon I found myself slipping romance novels into my grocery cart, along with the milk and eggs. Exhausted though I was by the demands of medical training, I became a voracious romance reader … all the time feeling slightly sheepish about my secret addiction. Wait, I was a medical doctor! A Stanford graduate! Why wasn’t I reading, oh … Proust instead?

Then one night, while on Intensive Care rotation, I happened to glance around at the ICU nurses who were taking their coffee breaks, and I realized that they were all reading romance novels. They were doing it happily and unashamedly. If you’ve ever worked in a hospital, then you know that the smartest people in the building are probably the ICU nurses. I thought: if these women aren’t embarrassed by their reading material, why should I be?

Indeed, why should anyone be embarrassed by what they read?

That was when I finally gave myself permission to read for pleasure. To read what enthralled me, excited me, entertained me. Too many people feel forced to read what I call “legume literature” — books that are supposed to be “good” for you, the way broccoli is good for you. Snooty minds must have no candy! No cake-and-ice-cream books! You must read books that make you struggle and work, or you are a — a —

A what? A reader who actually enjoys books?

Once, at a signing, a woman came up to me and told me, quietly: “Thank you for making me enjoy reading again.” I looked up at her in astonishment. “Why didn’t you enjoy it before?” I asked her. “Because I belonged to this book group,” she said. “And all they read was serious literature. And I found the books they chose so depressing and difficult that reading became painful. PAINFUL! I became afraid of picking up any books at all. Then, on vacation, I read one of your thrillers, and I remembered something I’d forgotten since my childhood: That books are supposed to be fun!”

Now, that is just sad. A reader who was scared away from books by the tyranny of the Book Group.

Which is the point I really want to make: that there is nothing wrong with what you enjoy reading, including genre fiction. There is nothing wrong with romance novels or science fiction or books about cowboys. There is nothing wrong with enjoying what’s printed on the back of the cereal box. Maybe your Book Group will turn up their noses, but why should you have to make excuses for your reading choices?

Nor should writers ever have to make excuses for the genre in which they choose to write. One thing I’ve learned, after all my years is a novelist, is that EVERY book is difficult to write. Since romances focus on characters and relationships — vital elements in any novel — romance novelists actually have an advantage when they move into other genres. I’ve read too many thrillers that may be well-plotted and full of action, but they are lacking the very elements romance novelists are expert in: characters we care about, characters who are human enough to feel and fall in love.

I now write thrillers with graphic forensic and medical details, drawing from my own years as a physician. I don’t flinch from addressing what are sometimes painful current events. Mystery readers praise me for being dark and ruthless with some of my plots. Then, those same readers will happen across one of my early romance novels (now published under the Mira imprint) and let out a howl of “What the heck is THIS fluffy thing?”

Answer: it’s a romance novel, dears. Yes, there’s a love story in there — that’s what a romance novel is supposed to have. Criticizing a romance novel for being about love is like criticizing a cat for having whiskers. If you detest whiskers, then don’t play with the cat. And if you detest love stories, then don’t read romance novels, and later complain they’re … romance novels.