By Sheila Kumar
The romance bug bit me when I was in class eight and it bit hard. I became addicted to Mills and Boons. Back then only M&Bs qualified as true-blue romances. Oh, there was Barbara Cartland, but no self-respecting girl would admit to reading that grand dame`s sagas of lisping lissome lasses and rakish roués (who invariably carried a whip around… go figure). And yes, the libraries also stocked quiet love stories interwoven with history, passion, humour and pain by writers like Denise Robins, Victoria Holt, Georgette Heyer and the incomparable Daphne du Maurier, but they got slotted as literary romances. Besides, no teen wanted to read a storybook with a dictionary/thesaurus at hand to solve the mystifying allusions on every page.
The M&B, in sharp contrast, was a work of art: compact, concise, usually read through in one sitting and then loaned to grateful friends. Long before Elena Ferrante, we had intense discussions on whether Anne Mather (bestselling author of 160 M&Bs) was a man, on the admittedly slim evidence that she always began her stories with the man’s point of view. Long before book clubs became de rigueur, we argued about whether Violet Winspear (author of 70 M&Bs) had indeed married an Arab sheik, because how else did she get her deep insights into the mindsets of those robed males? We agreed sometimes that Janet Dailey`s heroines deserved one tight slap for being cringingly subservient to her heroes. We never had to argue about why romance readers absolutely revered Charlotte Lamb and unofficially anointed her as the queen of M&B writers. Our impromptu book gatherings were more giggle-fests than bitch-fests. Well, those were uncomplicated times, calling for uncomplicated plot points.
Then life intervened in the plot, as it always does.
I grew up, got a job, switched some careers, got married, had a kid, but the M&B love lasted. And whichever small town my army husband was posted in, I`d seek a library and get my fix. Every time I`d chance upon a book exhibition and sale or a second-hand bookstall, I`d pick up a pile of Peter Mayle, Alistair MacLean, Oliver Strange… and yes, a few M&Bs written by my favourite authors. One highlight in my life was heading to the frequent book fairs on Commercial Road in Ooty, when we lived in the Nilgiris, where I’d always score piles of Charlotte Lambs.
I owned my love for M&Bs most happily. Nothing stealthy or furtive about my love, thank you. This, when those romance imprints suddenly acquired a less than favourable reputation, with people spitting out the word `’M&B’ like it was an epithet. As if it stood for all things unreal, superficial, escapist — veritably the dumb blonde of the publishing world.
Me, I didn’t buy that nonsense; I read Shakespeare, Wodehouse and James Joyce and also read an M&B (or four) alongside, quite happily. If occasionally, the book jacket was a particularly lurid bodice-ripper, then it was read concealed in a larger brown-paper covered, innocuous book. But it was read. And along the way, I got to know my romance grain from the chaff, the gold from the dross. My respect and admiration for the aforementioned Charlotte Lamb grew. Lamb had imbued the common or garden romance with much emotion, much delving into the human psyche, some walking the darker paths and much hot romance, but of course. Her heroines were not sunny, vacuous women who rode on pure emotion, the way many M&B heroines did. Instead, they were imperfect, afraid of their own feelings and sexuality. Her heroes were not the archetypal macho studs; they battled with their emotions just the way their women did.
By the time Lamb reached her apex with the six-book set Barbary Wharf set, which encompassed six individual love stories set against one common backdrop of a newspaper in London’s Canary Wharf, I was a committed fan.
In 2012, I wrote my first book. It was not a romance, though; it was a set of slice-of-life short stories that went out into the world to a very warm reception. After which, I tapped my inner Charlotte Lamb: I now wanted to write a romance. I wanted to write a Mills & Boon.
I’d have liked to be the first Indian M&B writer, but my friend Milan Vohra had already got to that momentous milestone before me in 2009. No matter, I told myself, I was going to write one helluva romance, one which the M&B folk would grab with glee. And after that, it wouldn’t matter (to me, I mean) if I didn’t write another book in life.
The first check came at my desktop. I had some sort of basic story but writing it proved rather difficult. What I had in mind was, in local parlance, simplagi ondhu love story. No slashers lurking at the nukkad. No murk or mystery to solve even as X found a soulmate in Y. No spells of deep depression or manic mood swings to negotiate alongside hot dates. Basically, an uncomplicated plot point in our complicated times.
Then, I had grown up on a diet of romances where men proclaimed, women declaimed… much words, mostly of a descriptive kind and a little action, neatly wrapped in suggestions and euphemism. But romances now were mostly action, and hot and heavy action at that. This meant writing up a love story in the era of 50 Shades of you-know-which-colour. I’d heard of instructions on how to write an M&B on their website but hey, I wasn’t going there; I was confident I could write a bodice-ripper without any assistance, thank you!
Truth be told, amping up the passion in my story was a piece of chocolate ganache cake, so sue me. What can I say, my hero was toe-curlingly gorge, the girl was irresistibly lovely, and together, they burnt up the sheets! If at all roses nodding their heads together featured in my story, it… no wait, no roses, standing or nodding, feature in my story!
The problem arose as a tussle for control. My hero and heroine acquired decided minds of their own. I wanted my photojournalist hero to squire some ravishing women to haute parties but he decided to go off, every chance he got, to less-than-exotic spots, chasing drug mule stories! I’d have liked my lovely heroine to have had at least one — calibrated but heart-wrenching — meltdown in the course of her tumultuous course d’amour but she turned out to be possessed of much commendable calm, definitely not the type to have meltdowns of any kind.
I eventually managed to finish the book and looked at my manuscript with slightly surprised pleasure. I had written a dashed good romance! Exciting storyline, humour, a plot that progressed at a good pace, conflict, sizzling conflict resolution, it was all there. The sexual tension was simply amazing, modesty be damned. As for the title, I felt that it was all things to all readers: catchy, intriguing, almost self-explanatory, a winner, modesty be damned again.
I emailed my spiffing romance to the publishers of M&B, and waited. And waited. And waited some more.
No response. Maybe they hadn’t received it? I got my manuscript spiral-bound and sent it off like a questing arrow to the same lot, requesting acknowledgement of receipt. You guessed it: no response.
By this time, I was spending hours online, scrolling the M&B website, looking for a cosmic clue. Finding what I thought was one, I mailed a synopsis and three chapters to an online address and what do you know, received a response! Except, it was not the response I was looking for. It politely told me that since my hero was Indian, I needed to send it to M&B’s Indian HQ.
Grateful to be sent any kind of direction, I emailed the first three chapters of the book to the website of people who published M & Bs in India, and settled down to wait. I was convinced they were going to revert immediately and tell me they loved the book… well, the first three chapters at least! Weeks passed, months passed. No response, again.
In the interim, I nearly suffered a heart attack when I was scrolling the racks at my local library, and came across a book with the same (catchy) title I`d so happily given mine! My heart settled only when I saw that it was a manual for physics students studying the String Theory. Another unpleasant shock came at a handicrafts fair when I came across a boutique stall which had yes, the same name … and had to stop myself from scowling fiercely at the poor girl behind the counter. Yet another bad moment happened when one evening, I switched on FM radio and heard of an acoustics programme that went by That Name. The whole world was using my title, damn it!
By this time, I had also taken to reading my daily horoscope in fervent fashion, looking for words like ‘receive…good news…hear back… long awaited news…closure’ Every time I saw Snoopy waiting for word from his publishers for that manuscript which began: It was a dark and stormy night, I would feel a sharp pang of empathy.
I also switched my Facebook password to the name of my hero. Some months on, in a dismal moment of revelation, I realised I had, along with those three chapters of my magnum opus, provided an email address that had expired a decade ago! A fresh set of chapters with the correct email address went out.
Months passed. Then voila! The curtain briefly parted. Someone from the publishers told me they`d received the MS and would forward it to ‘the person concerned.’ Thereafter, more months of silence.
Then, a Backlist Editor got in touch and a kind of pattern developed. I’d wait out what I deemed was a decent period, then send her a gentle non-nagging (or so I thought) reminder; she would say she hadn’t started on it or that she had just started it, that she had moved it to the Head Honcho`s table, that no decision had been taken on it yet. The silver lining in this dark cloud was that the aforementioned Backlist Ed said she quite liked the story. In my spare moments, I’d wonder what exactly backlists were and why my freshly-minted manuscript qualified to be on a backlist. Many sleepless nights, as you can imagine.
Along came a book launch and with it, along came the Head Honcho, to my town. Did I buttonhole her? Yes I did, dear reader.
Head Honcho was able to instantly recall my manuscript and told me she had really liked it. She talked of the book as a done deal and went off, and the old silence descended. By this time, I was making like Pico Iyer and befriending silence in as calm a manner as I could; alas, not being possessed of the commendable calm of my heroine, I was having quite a few meltdowns.
Many months later, the denouement happened so quietly that there was no reaction time. Yet another editor at the publishing house got in touch with me, said she liked the story a lot and bingo! My dream had turned into a reality.
All’s well that ends well, you say? Nah. Things chugging along well enough, I asked my Ed when my M&B was debuting: was it going to be a full-moon-in-June evening? Did I have to show up with a red rose between my pearly-whites? Would I have to giggle girlishly?
M&B, she asked. It’s not an M&B, it’s an independent romance, she said.
Ah, this dish had been long in the cooking and now the end result was a little different from what I had envisaged. Then again, it was still a delectable dish, modesty be damned for the third time! And so, I was happy I didn’t spend much time pondering on the twist in this tale.
Why not, you ask, dear reader. Well, read on.
To reference the Bard, a romantic kind of fellow if you recall, what’s in a name, anyway? A romance by any other name than M&B will still read as sweet. That I promise you, on my stash of Charlotte Lambs.
Sheila Kumar is an author who always wanted to write a romance. The name of her soon-to-be-out romance is No Strings Attached.