Perspectives: Growing up poor and the HEA

Hi, everyone! Audra here. Today is Charlotte’s day to post, but we decided to do a joint thing because of a conversation we had last week on Twitter about growing up poor and how that influenced the way we create and consume romance stories. We got together shortly after that convo and decided to turn it into a post in which each of us offers our perspective on this topic. So…since this is a longer post, I’m gonna keep this intro short and just jump right in!

Charlotte says…
rtnThe thing is about growing up poor—I never knew we were until much later. Even when Audra started talking about it, my first instinct was to think: did I really have it that bad? We were very loved and my grandparents did a lot for us so maybe not right? But then as we carried on chatting I realized the same thing I always do. The same thing I see when I look at old pictures of us. Those pictures look like something out of This Is England. I had five years being raised by a single Mother (after being abandoned by our alcoholic Father) who sometimes had to walk ten miles with us to get us food, and then another ten living in the worst area in Leeds. Riots happened a minute from where we lived. Our school was voted worst in the county and briefly closed down. Both my early schools are now gone.

I was pretty much the only kid who read books, and though I didn’t understand that we had nothing I did understand that. It’s the reason I don’t hold “being weird” in as high estimation as some people do.There is nothing fun and special about being bookish in a world where everyone is struggling to get by. Nor is there anything fun about being the only girl who grew up poor at college and university—because I was that too. Nearly every friend I managed to make had a beginning rife with grammar schools and Latin lessons and private tutors. Most of them took Shakespeare for granted.

I was the only one listening during that semester. The only one with no sense of style or grace: because here’s the other thing you don’t often hear about being poor, and particularly in fiction. You don’t know how to dress because you were always dressed in whatever there was. And if you’re a fat girl, you get double the bad luck there. Fat girl clothes were twice as expensive and twice as unpleasant when I grew up. I spent years in stretchy cycling shorts and cheap t-shirts, and even after I slimmed to a size twelve we just couldn’t afford the type of thing other girls wore.

I distinctly remember one of my very best frenemies almost constantly shaming me about “designer” labels. Of course looking back now I completely understand that her labels weren’t really designer at all. She wasn’t strolling around school in Prada. She thought Calvin Klein was the epitome of cool, and so did all of us because we could barely afford Top Shop. That was what being poor was: a different perspective and mindset. We weren’t dreaming of Gucci.

We were praying for half price high street.

I didn’t splurge at book stores the way I do now. I saved one pound a week pocket money to buy a single Christopher Pike title per month. And when one year I broke my arm and had relatives all randomly buy me books, I thought it was goddamn Christmas. I craved books. I cried when I found ten pence Enid Blyton at a car boot sale and my Dad said I could have as many as I wanted. It broke my heart that my school library was one shelf in a hallway.

So really, with all this in mind, is it any wonder that I love romance? I longed for the world romance heroines inhabited, far away from the unrelenting grey mundanity of being poor. Because that’s another thing no one tells you either: poverty is an endless series of dull moments. The glamorous flashes of drama that seem to happen in everyone else’s lives never happen in yours. You lose to the smallest and most pathetic of things. You stick out like a sore thumb—and not in a good way.

In a clumsy, little, embarrassing way.

So yeah, I love that romance HEA. I love the promise of it; I love writing that promise. My books are full of neuroses and panicked inner thought and realism, because that is what I know life to be. And they end happily, because that is what I always longed for. I want my heroines to have their brass ring, to finally belong, to have it not matter, because I know what it’s like to go without those things.

It makes you look back and think everything was fine.

Then cry, when you realize it wasn’t.
Audra says…
rlIt all started with the underwear.

Doesn’t everything start with underwear?

A few days ago, I had to throw away a pair of old underwear. They were just too worn out. And somehow, my brain (in the way of brains) decided to reach back 15 years and remind me of Jude Deveraux’s River Lady. I knew I had liked that book, but at that moment—and even now— all I can remember from it is the underwear bit. Basically, the heroine, who grew up in poverty, wears these plain, serviceable dresses on a long wagon journey, yet has these super cute undies. While her rival, who wears silk and satin dresses, has hole-riddled, faded-grey drawers. Now, to be fair, at some point in between being massively, horribly poor and going on this agonizing Oregon Trail-type adventure, the heroine had been taken in by a wealthy family and given new clothes, so her having nice underwear was sort of believable.

But that memory, in turn, sparked a bunch of other memories about other romances in which poor heroines who are mad struggling for cash—like, fainting from fucking hunger—are somehow wearing nice, sexy underwear when the hero finally strips her clothes off.

And after all these random romance novel memories surfaced, I was like, I need to say something about this.

Until I was twelve years old, I was a poor kid. Not starving poor, but more often than not, food wasn’t easy to get. My dad had a low-level engineering job, because he lived in the weird in-between work of highly-educated-with-terrible-English. And my mom was a piano teacher. The money that kind of stuff brought in…well, it was enough to keep us alive and in tattered hand-me-downs, but it wasn’t enough to let us break through that bubble—that weird, malleable divide between poor and middle class that wraps around you no matter where you go and won’t let you out without some serious combat skills. When the lunch your parents packed isn’t enough because that’s all they could afford, and you start begging your friends to give you some of their lunch, they know. When you recycle the same two outfits, day in and day out, they know. The bubble is transparent, but still visible.

We ate huge quantities of white rice, convincing ourselves that it was healthy. But really—mostly—it was just cheap and filling. We often couldn’t afford milk or meat, but we could afford processed cheese, which is one of the reasons why I was overweight when until I was nine and the doctor told my mom to stop giving it to me. It’s not like my mom knew any better—she’d grown up poor, too, without access to the kind of information about health and hygiene that kids with money took for granted. I didn’t know that flossing my teeth was important because we couldn’t afford visits to the dentist, and we weren’t taught those things in school. None of us were beautiful, healthy, glowing-from-the-inside people despite our poverty. Poor romance heroines who do this are either extremely fortunate in their access to knowledge and foodstuffs…or irradiated.

And then there were the cultural differences. I mean, apart from being the child of an immigrant, which has its own set of issues. It’s the money-based culture that I mean here. I divided my peers at school into two groups: the girls who learned dance and the girls who learned to sew. I don’t know why I used this as the division when I was just a child, but somehow in my kid-mind, I already knew there was something different between girls who learned how to make their own clothes and girls in leotards and special shoes who plié’ed and tapped their way to something beautiful.

Anyway. So. Back to the underwear. My mom never had nice underwear. I know, because I used to do our laundry. I never did, either, when I was growing up. It was always ripped or the elastic was shot, or whatever. Just…not nice. I know my experience is not the defining “Poor Kid” experience. I know there are poor women who buy nice, sexy underwear because they want to feel pretty, and I’m not saying that’s wrong.

But what I’m getting at–what my point is about underwear and glowing good health and dancing skills, it’s that I hate when romance novels use things like a heroine’s nice underwear as a legitimation of femininity. I really hate it. Because that kind of stuff is wealthy femininity. We don’t need to justify a poor heroine’s poverty by giving her a rich woman’s femininity. That device is nothing more than a contrived way to make sure that the poor heroine’s femininity cannot be questioned.

But that’s crazy. Panties can’t make a woman break through that bubble. Dance lessons can’t do it. And in the end, trying to use these things as a way to do that—to put the heroine firmly on the other side of that visible transparency by, say, giving her a mysterious wealthy benefactor who saw her truefemininity when she was young and paid for dance lessons—feels wrong. Because it is wrong. Because poor femininity is beautiful, too. It might not always be in flawless porcelain skin, but it is in the way that a poor woman can move just as gracefully in her two-for-a-dollar polyester panties as a rich woman can in La Perla. It is in the hard work of rough hands and the hugs that feel just as good for the love that they represent. It is in their sighs as they breathe and the stitches they sew.

It sucks to be poor. It sucks. It can be the worst of all that is lonely, in so many ways. But I will say: though I am grateful for the way things changed when I was twelve—when my mom got a job as an accountant after finishing school and our world improved considerably—I refuse to believe that women are only allowed to be seen as worthy of love if they have rich lady panties.

The underwear does not make the heroine.

Posted in Writing Wonkomance | 12 Comments

Virtual Shelves, Meta That Matters, and Shades of Should

There are sort of two posts in one today, but they’re related and the second block of thought is pretty short, so…just FYI.

A couple of weeks ago, Laura Bradford tweeted a single line from a book, Erasing Sherlock, that she had signed a decade ago and failed to sell because the work “did not neatly fit into any one genre” (from the Kelly Hale page on Wikipedia). It was eventually published by Mad Norwegian Press.

This book. Is. Amazeballs.

I glommed it in a night—the book hangover that I suffered the next day was the first one I’d had in a long time. With my husband traveling pretty much all the time for work, I cherish my sleep and it takes a seriously excellent book to make me sacrifice a single minute of slumber. But Erasing Sherlock was worth it.

So why am I writing all of this? Is it just to recommend the book to you? Well, that’s part of it. It’s a gripping, sexy, grotesque, thoughtful book, and it is the kind of book that—as mentioned earlier—cannot be classified into a single genre. Which is exactly why you should read it.

Erasing Sherlock belongs on so many shelves, and yet none at all. If there were a shelf for the genre of “Very Good Books,” that’s where it would go. But there isn’t one, even in the meta-tastic virtual shelf world, and that is really the point of this post: that relying on the status quo of existing labels–that relying on labels, in the first place–often causes us to miss out. Cecilia Tan talked about this in the author interview she gave on Wonkomance back in January, saying, “Why can’t a book have everything that’s good about erotica and romance and mystery and science fiction, for example?…labels are only the start of the conversation, not the be-all, end-all.”

But all too often, we are given the label as part and parcel of the end product. Even in today’s digitized world of virtual shelves, it’s too easy to fall into the trap of “This is.”

This is a romance. This is not a romance. This is literary fiction. This is not literary fiction. This is black and this is white and if you like black then you should not like white, and yet…

And yet.

Our minds—our lovely, complex minds—rarely follow a single track. Look at this video of what fish thoughts look like, for example:

A freakin’ fish. If that’s how fish think, then imagine what it looks like in the human mind. It’s not some single, straight line or the proverbial light bulb blinking on in one small compartment of the brain. It’s a crazy, bleeding, explosive flash that spreads out over a wide area and encompasses so many possibilities in a single instant. It is something to be appreciate and admired, and I love books that pay homage to this complexity by being more than a label.

If not for the labels, Very Good Books like Erasing Sherlock might have landed into my hot little hands much sooner. In fact, I would have continued to miss out but for the fact that I like Laura Bradford and trust her recommendations. Erasing Sherlock has never shown up in my Amazon recommendations. The wrong label and all.

Labels can be comfortable. Labels can be easy. They can also be constricting and prohibitive and damaging. I looked at the reviews for Erasing Sherlock before I bought it. One of the reviews, in particular, jumped out at me because I was already thinking about the book in the context of genre classifications and labels, and the irony of the review title, “Why, oh why, you female writers?” (from Amazon review of Erasing Sherlock, by user kete) was hard to ignore.

You female writers. There’s a repulsive, sweeping generalization wrapped up in a label. And in the review, the reviewer talks about how Erasing Sherlock is just another “trite love story.” It’s a label party up in there! But the thing is, the book isn’t a trite love story. It contains so many other elements—suspense, mystery…but the reduction by a reader to a single, dismissive classification says a lot about how labels have permeated our thinking.

This book is really well-written. This book is thrilling. But it’s not simply “literary fiction” or “a thriller.” This book…is a Very Good Book. If you like Very Good Books—not necessarily romances or horror stories or even Sherlock Holmes—then you might like this Very Good Book. Go on, give it a try. There’s room for it on your virtual shelf, I know it.

Do any of you have recs of Very Good Books that don’t fit neatly into a single genre? (Even if they’re classified and sold via the vehicle of a single genre, and especially romance.) Please share them in the comments. My fish brain would really appreciate it.

About Erasing Sherlock

erasing_sherlockA 21st century doctoral candidate takes on the guise of a maid-of-all-work in 19th century London in order to document the methods of Sherlock Holmes before he gained notoriety. It’s a remarkable opportunity for research in the field, bestowed upon her by a benefactor who has sold his soul for a technology that only works if the devil he sold it to is sufficiently entertained.

The life of Sherlock Holmes is being written by another hand, and maid must become the master if she wants to survive. Because the devil loves a spectacle. The more blood, the better.

It is available digitally on Amazon.

The second, short post (postlette?) is related to classifications and the narrowness of labels. Essentially, it’s about the “shoulds” that we bring to our reading. The views we have of how certain worlds should behave. About what people need to do. What love is supposed to look like. How an author has to write. The Shoulds, Need-tos, Supposed-tos, and Have-tos are often testament to how we’re so much more forgiving of exploration in a world for which we have no preconceived Shoulds than we are of the one in which we live.

I loved the note at the end of Alexis Hall’s Prosperity, where he writes (in character), “Through a combination of divergent physical laws and the ignorance of your scientific establishment, several technologies…were not developed to their fullest extent in your reality, to the detriment of your people and their culture.” I cannot speak for Alexis, but I can say that I laughed out loud when I read that, because in my mind it was a big, Fuck you, “Should.” I don’t want to miss out on terribly wonderful things because they don’t line up with the way Things Should Be.

Posted in Formative Wonk, Reading, Thinky | Tagged , , , , | 7 Comments

On falling in love in Romanceland: A Guest Post by Jenny Holiday

Hey, everyone! Audra here. I want to welcome Jenny Holiday to Wonkomance with a guest post on falling in love in Romanceland. Jenny is the author of a newly-released debut, Saving the CEO, which is a funny, wonderful book in which the CEO is not an asshole and the heroine is a genius and a bartender. Jenny is also a fantastic person and friend! So without further ado, here she is!

I probably started writing romance novels way before I ACTUALLY started writing romance novels. As far back as I can remember, I would spin love stories in my head at night when I was “trying to fall asleep.” Greg Brady and I went on A LOT of dates—until I threw Greg over in favor of Ponch from CHiPS. (Later, as an adult, I was talking to a doctor about my insomnia, and she asked me about my sleep hygiene. The conversation we had resulted in her saying, “Wait. You’re telling me you actively resist falling asleep so you can tell yourself stories?” Um, what’s your point, Doctor Know-it-all?)

What can I say? I’m a sucker for a love story. Later, as an adult, when my late-blooming self discovered romance novels, I quickly realized “romance novelist” was the perfect job for me. I was sort of doing it already, anyway!

What I couldn’t have known, when I started my journey to Romanceland, was that I would fall in love so hard, so many times.

It started with my first critique partners. These were the first people with whom I practiced being who I really wanted to be. For me, saying, “I want to write a book and get it published,” was a bold, scary assertion. It went against my ingrained Midwestern tendency toward self-deprecation. Failure was possible—likely, even. But with these two women, I rehearsed. We all did. We acted like what we wanted to be. Doing that was a shortcut to intimacy. When you’ve shown someone the shitty first draft of your shitty first book, you’re skipping a lot of steps.

Later, I expanded my circle of love affairs to include others: my agent, friends I made online (including and especially Wonkomance’s own Audra North). I feel like the refrain of the past couple years as I’ve made friends in Romanceland and discovered so many simpatico soul mates has been, “OMG! ME, TOO!”

Even though I’m now published, and my books are (I hope) less shitty than when I started, there’s still an aspect of intimacy in these relationships that isn’t present in my real life friendships. It was and still is a bit of a trip to spend time with people who understand that the fictional worlds we inhabit are as important to us as the real one.

As a thought experiment, I’ve tried to imagine if I had become a capital-L literary novelist or, I don’t know, a memoirist. Would I have lost my heart so many times along the way? My sense is no, and I’ve been trying to figure out why. I think it’s because Romanceland is populated with a much higher proportion of feminists than the real world. In a world where the “f-word” has somehow become synonymous for man-hating, it’s an unusual thing we have going here in Romanceland. (Honest to Goddess, the next person I hear say, “I’m not a feminist, I’m a humanist,” or “I’m not a feminist because I think everyone should be equal” is going to get dropped kicked across the room.) In other words, Romanceland = my tribe.

Don’t underestimate the power of your tribe + the intimacy of letting someone into your fragile fictional worlds. For me, it’s a potent combination, and one that I thank my lucky stars for every day.

So now Greg Brady doesn’t have my whole heart. It’s been subdivided a few dozen times, and he’s sharing it with a bunch of awesome ladies.

About Saving the CEO

stcReal estate mogul Jack Winter has rules. Lots of rules. After all, a man doesn’t build an empire without a little discipline. And on page one of the rulebook? Don’t sleep with your employees. Especially when there’s a multimillion dollar real estate deal at stake…

Luckily for Jack, Cassie James isn’t really his employee. She’s a hot bartender who just happens to be the math genius he needs, and if they share a wicked chemistry? Well, that’s just a sexy little perk. So they strike a deal: Cassie helps Jack with the merger. And until the deal goes through at Christmas, they can indulge every impulse they desire.

But the more rules Jack makes, the more he seems to break…

Buy it on: Amazon * iBooks * Barnes & Noble * kobo


About Jenny Holiday

JennyHoliday_webJenny Holiday started writing in fourth grade, when her awesome hippie teacher, between sessions of Pete Seeger singing and anti-nuclear power plant letter writing, gave the kids notebooks and told them to write stories. Most of Jenny’s featured poltergeist, alien invasions, or serial killers who managed to murder everyone except her and her mom. She showed early promise as a romance writer, though, because nearly every story had a happy ending: fictional Jenny woke up to find that the story had been a dream, and that her best friend, father, and sister had not, in fact, been axe-murdered.

From then on, she was always writing, often in her diary, where she liked to decorate her declarations of existential angst with nail polish teardrops. Eventually she channelled her penchant for scribbling into a more useful format. After picking up a PhD in urban geography, she became a professional writer, spending many years promoting research at a major university, which allowed her to become an armchair astronomer/historian/particle physicist, depending on the day. Eventually, she decided to try her hand again at happy endings–minus the bloodbaths. You can follow her on twitter at @jennyholi and @TropeHeroine or visit her on the web at

Posted in Guest Post | Tagged , , | 5 Comments