With 35 million copies of her books in print, Jayne Ann Krentz is undisputedly Seattle's top-selling author. Best known for fusing romance and suspense, the former librarian has placed more than 40 consecutive titles on the New York Times best-seller list—never mind whether she gets reviewed in the Times. Your Rabans and your Alexies and your Gutersons may receive more highbrow buzz and attention, but Krentz practically has her own aisle at the bookstore (or grocery store). That includes her brand extensions, the pen names Amanda Quick (for historical romance) and Jayne Castle (for futuristic and paranormal), which give her enormous market clout. Yet, apart from her obvious productivity, her sales also derive from a willingness to change and adapt old romance genres, which she sees as key to the industry's resurgence.
"One of the great advantages we've had in romance is that the critics have ignored it," says Krentz. "Because you could do anything you wanted. There were no rules. Because a publishing house [doesn't] stand to fall on the basis of one book, you can afford the failures, you can afford to experiment, and that gives you a lot of freedom as a writer. Which is why I think we've seen all these subgenres develop."
She says this in a Belltown Tully's close to her downtown home, hair dyed a shade of red, looking a bit like Nancy Pearl's hipper cousin. For good reason, she's a regular speaker at RWA and GSRWA conferences, and our conversation is something of a run-through for the talk she later delivered at the latter's Emerald City Writers' Conference last month, addressing the theme "How do you keep reinventing yourself?"
That, of course, is the challenge for the romance industry, too. A few decades ago, Krentz recalls, the hidebound business was stuck in parallel ruts—contemporary series novels (dominated by Brits) and single-title historicals (pioneered by Americans). "Those two subdivisions of the genre have since blossomed. In the 1990s, the market just took off," she explains, in part because American company Simon & Schuster stopped distributing the wares of Canadian-owned Harlequin. As New York publishing houses sought to develop new brand-name authors, suddenly there was a market opportunity for, say, the writer who wanted to do a mash-up of courtroom thriller and romance, or vampires and romance, or ghosts and romance.
Krentz recalls, "The first book I ever wrote was a paranormal romance, but there was no market. I couldn't sell it. Twenty years later, I can sell it. Paranormal is just superhot right now. And nobody knows quite why." Full of vampires, werewolves, and the like, paranormal is today one of 12 distinct subgenres she details in a neatly printed, bulleted memo she brings to our sit-down chat (once a librarian, always a librarian). And Krentz has planted her flag there, too, with a series involving the Arcane Society of psychics who have various historical adventures (and romances) through the ages. (Next up: January's Sizzle and Burn, Putnam, $24.95.)
Though Krentz notes that she and other writers weren't taking their cues from TV, the success of The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer "convinced publishers there was a market, and they tried the books, and the market just exploded. It was a 'They're watching it on TV and maybe they'll read it' kind of thing. As usual, it's the writers who lead the way."
For all this furious proliferation of romance themes, Krentz sees a structural continuity at work. "None of the genres have changed that much," she says, even after feminism, the baby boom, and the majority of women entering the workplace. "Harlequin heroines got a bad rap. I'm not a Harlequin writer, but if you read those books, the heroines in those books usually had careers; they usually had families that they have to provide for, they had jobs...[and weren't] the lady of the house or the wealthy aristocrat. For whatever reason, the genre got that image of passive women. It's not true. The thing that's changed in the past two or three decades is that the jobs became more modern. As the job market opened up in real life, the job market opened up in fiction, too."
So while the genre—or "fictional landscape," per Krentz—may change, the players also remain consistent. Whether sci-fi, suspense, or vampire, "At the core of all the genres are the archetypes," says Krentz. "Our concept of a hero doesn't alter radically if you put him into a science-fiction story. We still know what a hero's supposed to act like. He's still gotta have the classic heroic values"—courage, honor, and determination.
When it comes to advising authors, Krentz says: "A lot of people will see their core story as being, for example, historical. 'I couldn't write anything unless I set it in the Wild West! That's my core story.' But it's not! The core stories are always the relationships. And they can go into any time period. So get rid of the wagon train, honey! If it's not selling, move it into the contemporary world. Put it into the future. Learn to do that if you wanna survive 20 or 30 years in the business."