LESLIE SOWERS Staff
SUN 07/11/1993 HOUSTON CHRONICLE, Section Lifestyle, Page 1, 2 STAR Edition
THE yards and yards of pristine white carpet, the plump white brocade furniture, the mirrored walls and idealized art suggest a woman who believes in romance. The profusion of mauve, pink and peach blooms in scentless, silken arrangements furthers the impression.
When Judith McNaught enters the living room of her Friendswood home in a long, graceful peach knit, steps out of her gold flats and tucks herself comfortably onto the overstuffed sofa, she confirms it.
Not only that, but the woman who writes novels that keep the hearts of American women beating just a few measures faster is also unashamed of it.
“I believe in romance,” she says. “The world believes in romance or couples wouldn’t get together and they wouldn’t get married.”
And they wouldn’t buy McNaught’s books in the millions.
With eight best-selling romance novels behind her, McNaught can virtually count on another with her latest release, “Perfect” (Pocket Books, $22). She flew to New York last month for a luncheon in her honor by Book of the Month Club, which selected her ninth book, as well as her yet unwritten 10th and 11th books, sight unseen. She has been repeatedly honored in the industry as a master of her genre.
She is also a master at defending it. Talk-show appearances and television interviews over the years have often raised her ire. Geraldo Rivera, she says, was completely frivolous. She was hoping for a serious discussion of the genre and its contribution to women. Instead, Rivera spent the time trying to tell if he was taller than a friend on the show.
“My last hostile interview was in Kansas City in 1987,” McNaught says. The local talk-show host read a love scene from “Something Wonderful” in a very suggestive voice. McNaught says it was one of a few love scenes in a 500-page book that included murder, intrigue and relationships.
She was armed and ready. She read four lines from the Bible’s Song of Solomon that she had rewritten in the third person. She asked for his comment, and he lambasted it as romantic trash. She took particular pleasure in telling him it was from the Bible.
“Women in the bookstore where I later did a signing were cheering,” McNaught says.
With the possible exception of her home decor, McNaught meets none of the stereotypes of a romance writer. No tresses blowing in the wind. No vagueness. On the contrary, she handles a request for information from her publisher with on-the-spot efficiency, smiling into the receiver as she talks to New York.
While her home cries out for a pair of matched miniatures of some foofy little breed of dog, McNaught has Friday, an endearing old Rhodesian Ridgeback with gray hairs at the chin and positively no glamour value.
“He came out of the woods 13 years ago and found us,” McNaught says. This was several cities and one marriage ago in St. Louis. She hadn’t yet begun writing romance novels.
She met Mike McNaught while she was assistant director on a film crew shooting a movie for a division of General Motors, where he was director of public relations. It was a second marriage for both, and between them they had seven children, her two and his five.
“We were soul mates,” McNaught says. “We had something special
and we knew it.”
It was Mike who encouraged her to act on her desire to write. He launched her with champagne and a fancy new typewriter, state of the art in those days. He supported her through long years of rejection notices.
Unfortunately, he wasn’t there to toast the acceptance of her first novel. He died in 1983 in a gun accident, a great tragedy in McNaught’s life.
Instead, daughter Whitney and son Clay called her from a Dallas mall to tell her that “Whitney, My Love” was on the shelves. They told her to come right away and bring a camera.
“It had its own display stand,” McNaught says. “I had Whitney stand on one side and Clay on the other, and I took their picture.”
Yes, she named the heroine and hero of her first novel after her children.
With the success of “Whitney, My Love,” McNaught was launched. One success has led to another. She has written both contemporary and historical romances in roughly equal measure. Plaques, trophies and awards are testament to her success in the genre: The Silver Pen for “Affaire de Coeur,” Bestselling Mainstream Romance 1990 for “Almost Heaven,” Bestselling Mainstream Romance 1992 for “Paradise.”
“Judy has an incredible ability to pull readers in emotionally,” says Kathryn Falk, owner of Romantic Times magazine in Brooklyn and a friend for 10 years.
Beyond considerable financial reward, McNaught has achieved some clout with her publishers.
She has always objected to the torrid, bodice-ripping covers of romance novels, covers that leave women embarrassed to be seen reading them. The first editions of her books were packaged this way. But she has succeeded in getting “classy” covers for her recent works as well as for new issues of her older books. Savvy McNaught asked for the change the first time one of her books hit the New York Times bestseller list.
She has a lovely Victorian nosegay displayed in a Plexiglas shadow box in her upstairs study. Next to it in the case is a copy of “Something Wonderful,” a similar nosegay on the cover.
McNaught says she has always broken the rules of her genre. When she started writing she didn’t know that Regency romances were supposed to be light romps with no sex. Hers was intensely sensual and witty, she said. Romances always introduce the heroine first. Hers began with the hero.
“I did it all wrong,” she says.
But if wrong turns out to be successful, McNaught learned, it could be termed “unique.” With sales of about 1.3 million per volume, she could even make the hero an escaped convict and get away with it.
Which, in fact, she has. “Perfect” tells the story of a virginal Texas schoolteacher who is kidnapped by a Hollywood film star and director who escaped from a Texas prison after being convicted of killing his wife. Readers and the heroine must wonder if he truly is a murderer. When the two hole up in his Colorado hideaway during a blizzard, body temperature all but eliminates the need for that roaring fire.
Did the elegant woman in peach, so crisp and contained, write these steamy scenes? McNaught downplays the role of sex in her books, saying it is always in the context of a relationship.
She emphasizes, instead, the book’s theme of literacy. Julie, her heroine, is an orphan who grew up thinking she was stupid because she didn’t know how to read. When Julie is adopted at 13 her life turns around, and as an adult she tutors illiterate women.
McNaught was on deadline with the second draft of “Perfect” when Coors Brewing Co. approached her to write a book that would appeal to women that the company could use to promote its women’s literacy program. McNaught was taken with the statistic that one in five women is functionally illiterate. She offered to rewrite the book and insert the literacy theme. She holed up in Colorado herself and spent another six weeks on “Perfect.”
This fall Coors will do a major promotion of “Perfect” and McNaught will donate a portion of the proceeds to women’s literacy programs. Included with each copy will be a card that readers can send to Coors to increase the amount donated and to request information on how they can become literacy tutors.
McNaught has become so involved in literacy that she is midway through the training to become a tutor herself in the Clear Lake area. She hopes her involvement will encourage other women to sign up.
McNaught fosters a personal relationship with her readers. She writes to them in a letter at the end of each of her books and employs a personal secretary to help her keep up with the correspondence she invites.
“It’s letters from these women that keep me going,” McNaught says. “I think we’re up to about 15,000 now.”
They usually begin Dear Judith.
“One woman wrote to tell me that her husband had died recently, and she didn’t think anything would ever make her laugh again. She laughed at something in one of my books and said it made her feel good about life, that there would be more laughs to come,” McNaught says. “I felt as if she had just given me a hug.”
She’ll always treasure the letter from a reader who was facing a surgery she might not survive. Her doctor had told her much depended on her attitude. She bought one of McNaught’s books to take to the hospital and only allowed herself to read the first three chapters. If she read that far, the reader told McNaught, she knew she wouldn’t want to stop reading.
“My goal is to entertain women,” McNaught says. “I want to write books that will make women laugh and cry and to leave them uplifted. I want them to forget they are tired or grieving or stressed.”
McNaught says she takes this mission very seriously, and it makes the books harder to write. Each takes about a year.
Over the years she has developed her own ideas about romance, what makes it tick and what makes it fail.
“There are a lot of reasons why romance goes sour,” McNaught says. “That first break can start it; the first time there’s a lack of courtesy and gentleness can lead to making fun of each other or belittling.”
If the break isn’t repaired, she says, things just get worse.
She tries to make her heroes models of what men can be. She wants them to be intelligent and caring. And, in her books, the woman is the most important thing in a man’s life, even if they are antagonistic.
“Women often don’t feel they are important to men,” McNaught says. “Any time a woman feels truly important, she feels loved, and romance flowers.”
Of course she idealizes romance, McNaught says. But she believes relationships would last if they were a bit more idealized in real life.
McNaught says men only act the way they have been raised by their fathers and their fathers before them. She says tenderness and gentleness are trained out of them at an early age as being sissy traits.
“We end up with men who think their value to us is how well they do at sports or business or war,” McNaught says. “Consequently, women are emotionally starving.”
In her novels, she tries to subtly reinforce the more feminine values of softness, kindness, the ability to negotiate and mediate.
McNaught has been divorced twice; her third marriage, to Don Smith, a professional golfer and engineer, ended in May. She said it was a peaceful, friendly split but that the marriage was definitely over. She held a party for 160 friends to celebrate entering a new phase of her life.
When her second husband died, she did a fairly extended stint as a single mother and feels it had one benefit to her son. She thinks he has learned to talk about things that bother him, and that his admiration for her will translate into admiration for a wife.
“He doesn’t think his value as a person is how high he rises in the corporation,” McNaught says.
McNaught remains close to her two grown children. She planned to travel with them as a reward for finishing “Perfect,” but her daughter had to cancel, so she will go with a friend instead. She names traveling as her primary pleasure outside work.
“I have a long list of girlfriends who are always ready to travel on the spur of the moment,” McNaught says.
She has lived in Friendswood for three years. It’s a very ordinary, upper-income neighborhood, minus any of the expected trappings of a romance writer. And McNaught says you won’t catch her wearing a negligee or screaming at the live-in houseboy like the character played by Meryl Streep in “She-Devil.”
This kind of image makes her cringe. The romance writers she knows are regular people, and she counts off a geologist, teachers and even an optometrist who have turned their pens to love’s service.
“It’s my way of communicating with my own sex,” McNaught says. “I am romance writer, and I will stand on that. I am proud of it.”
Copyright: Houston Chronicle Publishing Company Division, Hearst Newspapers Partnership, L.P.