New York City hosted the 35th Romance Writers of America conference this week. On the down side, the conference took place at a hotel in Times Square, which New York natives treat like an active war zone and avoid at all costs; on the up side, I got to hear and see some great writers in person but without incurring crazy hotel and travel costs.
The RWA is the professional organization for romance fiction writers in the U.S. (though it hosts writers from many corners of the globe). This was the first time I attended it and was moved by how generous and nurturing the bestselling writers appeared to be to new and upcoming members. In panels and workshops, there was a palpable sense of community, of lending a hand, of sharing one’s strengths and weakness, all in the service of helping others be better romance writers. I can’t recall seeing this level of mentoring at academic conferences (the professional community gatherings that I typically encounter).
Equally astonishing was a book-signing event that occurs before the conference each year, where the proceeds from the purchased books go toward literacy projects. (This year, that number was $48K.) I lined up for the signing in a ballroom along with hundreds of other readers, and was allowed to go into the actual signing hall without too much of a wait.
I walked around and had the pleasure of talking to authors I had been reading since my early teens and ones I’ve only recently discovered.
They were all gracious to a fault, whether you bought a book to be signed or not. While the best-selling writers were seated at the edges of the room, to make the long lines of waiting readers easier to manage, newer and rising stars lined the center, aisle after aisle of a complete alphabet of the genre. It was a special pleasure was to meet Joanna Bourne, an author I think of as romance’s equivalent to former Poet Laureate Kay Ryan for her long years of honing her craft, finally making her work available to readers after a diligent, possible solitary, apprenticeship.
While she humbly attributed her skill to having a quiet mountainside to gaze out on outside her home, I maintained my best academic demeanor (i.e., no fan-girling) and only took one photograph (no selfie!)
Another fun event that preceded the conference was a panel by romance writers at the Bryant Park Reading room, the open-air summer reading series of the New York Public Library.
We sat out on an idyllic sunny day while stars like Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Beverly Jenkins, Robyn Carr, Meredith Wild, Elizabeth Hoyt, and Kristan Higgins read excerpts from recent books and answered questions from the audience. I spoke to Jenkins and Phillips, both of whose books I read, analyze, and teach.
During the actual conference, I overheard conversations and tips on every element of the craft and the business of being a romance writer and was heartened to see spirited discussions on the need for more diversity in the genre—it is still predominantly white and straight. I shared meals and heard the inside scoop from writers, reviewers, and readers, made new contacts, and came away with more ideas on how to do justice to this genre in my own work. And all from the comfort of my own city.
In true romance novel fashion, there is an epilog. The conference ends with the RITA and Golden Heart awards, and this year, it was live-streamed, so I had a chance to enjoy seeing some authors win for their lifetime effort and others for their first strong attempts. I’m not a fan of award ceremonies in general, but this one was marked by the same spirit of generosity evident elsewhere at the conference, with winners expressing gratitude to their writing partners and their local chapters and mentors. Talk about a Happy Ever After.