Susan Donovan, Save the Contemporary, and Gettin’ Lucky: An Interview

Book CoverWhen Jane Litte and I hosted a session on “Save the Contemporary” at RT this year, in the middle of a discussion, we discovered that in the audience was contemporary romance author Susan Donovan. I think my literal response was, “Oh, cool!” So when she got in touch with me later, I suggested an interview, because I was curious what she thought of the contemporary market, and romance in general.

You visited our Save the Contemporary panel and we were very excited to meet you – thank you for coming. What do you love most about contemporary romance, reading and writing it?

Susan: I visited the “Save the Contemporary” panel at RT because I was alarmed to see the title of the workshop, plus I was hoping to get a free t-shirt. The truth is, I had no idea anything needed saving!  I’ve been so busy sitting at my laptop making up stuff set somewhere in modern-day America that I didn’t realize there was any kind of crisis with this type of fiction. I’m out of the loop, as usual.

Why do I gravitate toward contemporary romance? I’ve always been a here-and-now kind of girl, earth-bound and realistic, so I suppose that’s why I prefer contemporaries both to read and to write. I enjoy love stories that take place in what could conceivably be a real situation, in our time, and in a place that has a familiar feel to it.  In my opinion, if you have a sexy, hot, funny and wild love story grounded in the here and now, it’s even sexier, hotter, funnier and wilder because there’s some realism in it. It really could happen! Better yet, it could happen to me!  So when I write a contemporary love story, that’s always where I to start.  Then I kick it up a few notches, giving the reader a fantasy world within the real-world setting. The highest compliment I can receive is when a reader or reviewer says they knew from the start that a story’s premise was highly improbable, but the tale was written with enough detail, emotion and down-to-earth humor that they forgot it was damn-near impossible from the get-go.

Have folks told you that contemporary is tougher to sell, or is that a myth in romance publishing?

Susan: As I mentioned, I’d never heard contemporaries were hard to sell until I attended the RT workshop.  I’ve sold twelve contemporary novels and three contemporary novellas since 2000, all the while thinking contemporaries were hot. I mean, I always assumed contemporaries would be easier to sell than, say, medieval werepanther BDSM erotica. (OK, so maybe that’s not such a great example.)

But in all seriousness, it’s no harder to sell a contemporary than any other kind of book. It’s hard to sell a book, period. If you’re a writer trying to get your first sale, ignore everyone’s advice and everything you hear about what’s hot and what’s not. Your job is to find your voice and write the best darn medieval werepanther BDSM erotica story you can! Then keep your fingers crossed!

What tropes are absolutely your favorites? Guilty favorites, too – don’t be shy!

Susan: Sarah, I had to look up the word “trope” before I could answer you. I was afraid you were inquiring about my favorite French pastry or sexual position or something equally personal. Now that I know the word means “a figure of speech using words in non-literal ways, such as a metaphor,” I’m all over it! As it turns out, I love tropes. I love the heck out of those things.  My friends and family will tell you that I’ve been troping through life from an early age, making up words for stuff or coming up with strangely humorous ways to describe what goes on in the world. It seems I’ve surrounded myself with tropists, in fact. The man in my life goes trope-to-trope with me daily.  Many of my best friends are tropists as well, and my closest friend is the most entertaining kind of tropist possible – an involuntary tropist. Since her first language is German, she mangles metaphors on a daily basis, such as, “That girl is dragging around a lot of luggage.” (Think “baggage.”) And, “I almost blew a casket!” (Um, no. She doesn’t read vampire romance.)

So, to answer your question, my mind is a veritable treasure trove of tropes. I collect them when I eavesdrop at restaurants and when I travel. They’re part of my writing style. Now that I think about it, they’re everywhere in my books. I’m suddenly embarrassed by my prolific troping. I believe that somewhere along the line I’ve become a trope trollop.  Here are some of my all-time faves, many of which are disturbingly crude and, therefore, can be found in my books:

·    “Looks like he fell out of the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down.”

·    “She was on him like a cheap suit.”

·    “I’d like to open her up like a new Wal-Mart.”

·    “I’m hanging in there like a hair in a biscuit.”

·    “It’s wetter than a cucumber in a women’s prison.”

I think I better stop now.

Tell me about your upcoming book – plot summary, scene that’s your favorite, number of times you used the word “the….”

Susan: My book THE NIGHT SHE GOT LUCKY, (that’s one “the”) comes out May 25th from St. Martin’s Press. It’s Book #2 in a trilogy about women in a dog-walking group who give up on men and decide to lead happy lives in the (I’ll stop counting now) company of their dogs.  Of course, since I write romance, these women fall off the wagon one-by-one as they find their true loves. THE NIGHT SHE GOT LUCKY is the story of Ginger Garrison and Lucio “Lucky” Montevez.

Boy, do I love these two. Talk about volatile! In my opinion, there’s nothing sexier than the combination of a woman who thinks her life is over and a man who can show her it hasn’t even begun. And that’s what THE NIGHT SHE GOT LUCKY is about.

Ginger is a newly unemployed forty-year-old who’s raising teenage boys while trying to put her world back together after a painful divorce. She fantasizes more about Botox than bad boys and is suffering from a whopping case of psychosomatic menopause. Then she meets Lucio, a sultry Spanish lothario and world renowned wildlife photographer who’s been sidelined by an international “incident” that cost him his job, pissed off the Chinese and raised the suspicions of the State Department. Lucio decides he’ll take wedding pictures and designer pet portraits to pay the bills while he gets the mess sorted out, and he wants one of his first clients to be the succulent Ginger and her little bichon frise.  There’s an undeniable attraction, but can Ginger trust Lucio enough to reveal her hidden wild side? Is Lucio telling the truth when he says he’ll stick around? Or will someone out of his playboy past cost him the only woman he’s ever really loved?

As for my favorite scene. . .  hmm. Probably in chapter two, where Ginger thinks she’s alone, sipping wine at midnight in a lawn chair at the Sonoma Valley estate where her friend has just gotten married. She begins to feel sorry for herself, achingly lonely. Her thoughts wander to the sexy photographer she met earlier that day. She touches herself. Her need overflows. Her imagination runs amok. (I’m paraphrasing here. In my actual books, I try to avoid things that “overflow” or “run amok.”) So in her disheveled emotional state, Ginger envisions the swarthy photographer, feels his long hair gripped in her fingers, whispers all kinds of out-of-character nasty things to him, and then . . .  well, yes, she discovers it’s more than a fantasy and the guy really is kneeling in the grass before her, happy to follow her every request.  I won’t spoil it, but the scene ends with Lucio carrying Ginger to her room, patting her on the bottom and giving her back the panties she’d flung onto the grass. “You shouldn’t leave these lying around just anywhere,” he advises her.

As for that other part of the question, I honestly don’t know how often I use the “the” word. I’ve never really stopped to think about it.  But I’ll tell you what. I’ll just head out to the lawn chair in my front yard and sit a spell, maybe sip a glass of wine while I mull things over in my head. I’ll get right back to you.

Thank you, Susan! So, what about you? Do you love the fantasy-in-the-real-world setting? Improbable and possibly impossible but not put-down-able? What types of contemporary romances rock your boat?


Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Cris says:

    I’m amused that she’s not familiar with “tropes”, I guess that’s more a reader thing than a writer thing :)

  2. 2
    Bernie says:

    I love to read about places I have been to in contemporary romances. I can picture them there so brings the stories to life for me. Luckily I have moved alot around the us. And I am from Napa ssooo I would love this book!
            Peace To You,

  3. 3
    Mary G says:

    Excellent post!! I’m a mostly contemp & rom. susp. fan. If there is an issue, you wouldn’t know it by my TBR pile. I do think the perception is there however. All you have to do is check out the various book awards. There are single categories for contemp & rom. susp. and paranormal historical have numerous sub-types.  I started reading Susan’s book recently & I’m working on her backlist now.

  4. 4
    Mary G says:

    I don’t worry so much about improbable since I’m reading fiction. I love friends to lovers, reunited lovers and best friend’s sister or brother etc.

  5. 5

    Great interview, Susan and Sarah! I was laughing out lout reading it—not unlike the experience of reading one of Susan’s books. ; ) The Girl Most Likely To was one of the books that made St. Martin’s my dream publisher, and convinced me that writing contemporary romance was my dream, period! So thanks for that, along with the hilarious post.

    And I can’t wait to read The Night She Got Lucky…sounds insanely fun and hot!

  6. 6
    HelenK says:

    This interview made me laugh, I loved it. It also made me want to buy this book right now.

    I have a gift card, my son is sick…. But, is he so sick he couldn’t handle a little trip to the bookstore? :-D

    consider35 – consider 35 ways he could destroy the house if left alone. Must bring him with me.

  7. 7
    Lily says:

    I love her books and can’t wait to get my hands on this one having loved the first one in this series.

    Hooray for May 25TH and all its new book bounty!  Susan Donovan, Julia Quinn, Lisa Kleypas…  It’s Christmas in May!

  8. 8
    Beki says:

    Hey HelenK, if he’s sick enough, perhaps he’s too slow to seriously destroy the place while you dash out.  Or would that make him too sick to then be left alone?  These kids, mucking up our ability to leisurely browse the bookstores by day. 

    This one just went on my to-buy list.  I like that he gives her back the panties.  That’s a good guy.

  9. 9
    HelenK says:

    LMAO Beki, I’ve never seen him that slow and would seriously worry if he was. Last year, I considered leaving him (thinking maybe he was old enough) for 30 minutes to dash to school and back for my other son. Still thinking about it, I left him alone for maybe a minute. When I came back from the bathroom, he greeted me with “Uh, I don’t know how it happened, but there’s something wrong with the dishwasher.”

    I immediately abandoned any plans to leave him in the house alone.  Nothing over the past year has changed my stance. He’s not a boy I can leave alone. Maybe when he’s 20?

  10. 10

    Thanks for the comments, gang!

  11. 11
    Mari says:

    Bewildered by the whole misunderstanding of the “trope” thing…..
    To be honest, contemporaries don’t really “float my boat”  (is this a “trope?”).  Alot of the conflict seems to be what I call of the Oprah variety, as if all the heroine needed to do was go on Oprah or Dr. Phil, have a good cry and get over herself already.  That is to say, the conflict is almost always inner and in my opinion, a little too self absorbed for my taste.  I am of course, stereoptyping, but the last good contemporary I read was Erin MacCarthy’s “Flat Out Sexy” and it worked because she was able to create an outer conflict with the whole Nascar thing as well as have good inner conflict as well.

    Maybe, for me, contemporaries are just a bit too real and the realness is kind of a downer because its never real enough to be interesting and yet remains real enough for me to be bored!

  12. 12

    Great interview!  Susan Donovan is definitely going on my TBR list. Honestly, my favorite section was the “tropes.” I snorted I laughed so hard!

  13. 13

    I hate contemporary romances that feel contrived. When there’s an overblown mystery subplot or unrealistic characters, I get pissed. That’s not to say that I don’t like the improbable in a contemporary. I happen to love those kinds of stories as long as they’re done really well. I’ve been meaning to try Susan’s Ain’t Too Proud to Beg for a while now, so thanks for the great interview!

  14. 14
    Rebecca says:

    I think Sarah was using “trope” in the sense of “a common or overused theme or device; a cliche.”  That is certainly how I teach the word to my students, and otherwise the question doesn’t make much sense.  (I’m surprised that’s the secondary definition according to Webster.  I’ve never heard of it being used as a synonym for a literary element or device.)  Ms. Donovan’s response was certainly witty, but my inner English teacher cringed a bit.  It was too much like Jon Stewart’s bit about Gretchen Carlson.  (  It’.s perfectly normal to not know what a somewhat technical piece of literary jargon means…but if you’re a professional writer do you have to flaunt that?

  15. 15
    MaryK says:

    I have a BA in English, and I’d never heard the term “trope” until I started reading book blogs.  My classes discussed “themes.”

  16. 16
    Heather says:

    When I read contemporary romance, there are a few things that I focus on:  (1) a believable plot, particularly in developing the main romance. There is nothing worse than ridiculous barriers and mishaps – they don’t add spice, they make me annoyed. (2) great secondary characters. While this is always important, it is even more so in contemporaries since today friend (and family) relationships are often as important if not more so than the romantic relationships. (3) said secondary characters cannot be stereotypes. While I don’t require a full plot-line, I would like to see them as developed personalities.

  17. 17

    I hear you, Rebecca—I probably shouldn’t have gone around bragging that I didn’t know what a “trope” was.  But there was no artificial dumbing down involved, I assure you.  I came to my professional writer gig via journalism school and years of covering murder trials, school board meetings, and municipal governments.  I never found myself needing to know the definition of “trope” until Sarah’s Q&A.

    But I heard some good ones over the years. While covering a small city’s budget hearing back in 1985, the mayor uttered what I now realize may be my favorite trope of all time. After listening to citizens opine about whether a budget surplus should be spent on sidewalks or light poles, he admitted he was torn. “You’ve got me between a rock and a hard on, here,” he told the assembled citizenry. 

    Nope. My city editor wouldn’t let me use the quote. But today, thanks to the Internet, I’ve shared it with Smart Bitches the world over! :)

  18. 18

    Hey Susan!

    Thanks for writing the books that you do.  The first book I read of yours was He Loves Lucy, and remains one of my all time favorite contemporary romance.  Just thinking about that book makes me smile and sigh.

    For some reason I missed the first book in this new trilogy, but now that I know you have two out I know I will have some great summer reading coming my way!

  19. 19
    Julie says:

    Hi Susan,

    I love your books! I was thrilled to shake hands with you and talk a little at RWA National a few years back. After all, I’m not just a fan, I’m a pusher… I buy your books for other people who tell me that romance novels are badly written, formulaic, bla bla bla. Let’s just say that “Take A Chance on Me” has converted several people now to our way of thinking! (Who can resist Thomas Tobin and Hairy, the dancing Chinese Crested, huh?)

    It’s great to see an interview with you here, and I’m eagerly looking forward to picking up your latest on Wednesday night at the local romance book club!


    p.s. I write contemporaries as well. I wouldn’t know a “trope” if it bit me in the face.

  20. 20
    KeriM says:

    Hi Susan, that was a great interview! You have me laughing for sure. I love your books, have them all and cannot wait for The Night She Got Lucky! Gonna be a hoot! :-)

  21. 21
    meganb says:

    This whole time, I thought a trope was a worn out plot device, e.g. like the woman and her best friend’s brother (whom she detests) getting stuck in the ski chalet over Christmas by a massive snow storm, and no one else can get to them so they are stuck with just each other for four days.  And no electricity.  Body heat only.

    I will never look at a cucumber the same way again.

    Susan, Public Displays of Affection is in my all-time top ten.  I LOVE your books and have for years.  And you know, I’m not a huge fan of contemporaries.  Maybe it’s because the plots are too heavy on the inner conflict, the heroine is often Too Stupid to Live (in this day and age, can you believe it?) and the conversations are contrived.

    Fortunately, I have never had this problem with any of your books.  Thank you!  Especially for The Kept Woman, which helped keep me sane in China on the Business Trip from Hell.

  22. 22
    Kaetrin says:

    I love the contemporary.  I enjoy reading about people who relate the way I do in a world the rules of which I (mostly) understand.  I enjoy lots of different subgenres but contemporary and historical are my top 2.

    I’m looking forward to this book.  I have Aint Too Proud to Beg in my TBR pile – I’m a bad bad Susan Donovan fangirl.  Public Displays of Affection and Knock My Off My Feet are my faves so far (When Quinn says “come to me Audie” I get shivers. + I wanna see the movie!).

    Good luck with the new book Ms. Donovan.  You are an auto-buy for me and I know I’ll enjoy this one too.

  23. 23

    Thanks for stopping by, everyone.  I’ve had a great time hangin’ with the SBs today.  It was a treat!  Thank you again, Sarah, for the invite.


  24. 24
    Kelly S says:

    Hi Susan,

    Your book sounds wonderful!  I love funny contemporaries. They’re preference really. Like you, until I found out from Sarah and Jane, I had no idea contemporaries were in trouble. I also didn’t have a clue about the HUGE amount of historicals coming out each month. I’m glad you’re writing what you are. Keep going!

  25. 25
    K8 says:

    A trope is an overused plot device. A good place to check out (1000s and 1000s) of tropes is
    Be warned though, this website has cost me hours and hours of time I should’ve spent writing.

  26. 26

    Great interview! I’m totally with Susan on the romance plot that “could conceivably be a real situation” issue.

    Historicals are great for escaping utterly, but part of me wants to believe the love story I’m reading about could be happening out there, somewhere, to some lucky biotch. Plus when I read non-contemporaries I often either a) feel as though I’m being lectured to, as though the time period is an extra main character in itself, demanding I pay close attention to its costumes or social norms [spunkily defied] or futuristic werepanther sex-power rituals, or b) am left with tons of questions that aren’t answered [could she really defy her father so spunkily in this time period without being ostracized? How does this hot hot werepanther-on-lady action not qualify as bestiality, exactly?]

    Contemporaries at first glance may seem a dull choice to a reader looking for a bit of fun escapism—“Why would I read about a romance that could happen to me? Where’s the excitement in that?”—but at the end of the day, I think if the characters are well developed and likable, we’ll follow them into most any setting.

    Thanks, Susan!

  27. 27
    Kathleen says:

    I’ve written on the comments before.  As ever, when I think of myself as a reader I can never stick to one thing.  Even if I am in the mood for a romance, it’s not likely to be the same type twice.  I enjoy characters I can identify with in any setting.  Strong women with goals and values.  I would hate to see contem settings become scarce however, because they are about people I meet each day.

    That being said, I’ve recently started writing one of my own.  Don’t even ask me how it got started as erotic fiction.  But it does have a contemporary setting and revolves around a woman who looks like a perfect, suburban, soccer mom on the surface.  Then a crisis tosses her world into disarray.  How she fixes the problem is the story.

  28. 28
    SB Sarah says:

    I promise never to use the word “trope” again – which I totally learned in theatre classes of all places.

    But in other news, I have a copy of Susan’s book to give away – but I didn’t know I had one until last night. So! I select a commenter… NOW! SURPRISE!

    Kaetrin! Email me at sarahATsmartbitchestrashybooksDOTcom with your address and I’ll send you a copy of Susan’s latest book. Whee!

    Back to strokin’ my tropes.

  29. 29
    AgTigress says:

    Trope meaning ‘a cliched plot device’ is a very recent definition and is a buzz-word quite possibly confined to the study of popular fiction.  I first encountered it used with that meaning only when academic assessment of romance fiction began to appear, and had to work out what the new definition was from context, as it was certainly not in any dictionary with the new meaning at that time. Nor is it easily inferred from the traditional meaning of the word.  I would be surprised if that new definition has been around for much longer than 20 years, but even if it has, it still has not yet made it into most dictionaries.

    The basic meaning of trope is ‘figure of speech, metaphor’, and has been since the 16th century.  Here is one authoritative definition (and I am purposely taking it from an American, rather than British, source, to avoid the possibility that this is an AE/BE thing):

    trope? ?
    a.any literary or rhetorical device, as metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony, that consists in the use of words in other than their literal sense. instance of this. Compare figure of speech.
    2.a phrase, sentence, or verse formerly interpolated in a liturgical text to amplify or embellish.
    3.(in the philosophy of Santayana) the principle of organization according to which matter moves to form an object during the various stages of its existence. ————————————————————————————————————————Origin:
    1525–35; < L tropus figure in rhetoric < Gk trópos turn, turning, turn or figure of speech, akin to trépein to turn

    I am sure it will start to appear in dictionaries with the lit.crit. meaning soon.  Maybe even in BE.

  30. 30
    Rebecca says:

    Interesting how different people came to the word.  After seeing all the comments I tried to remember where I first came across the word.  I believe it was actually a literal translation of a Spanish lit-crit term, “topos,” which I think I first ran across about fifteen years ago in a seminar about the works that inspired Don Quixote….which were indeed genre fiction.  (I love it that Cervantes was basically doing with the sword and sorcery fantasies of his time what Terry Pratchett does with Tolkien and C.S. Lewis et al.)  For what it’s worth, AgTigress, the professor in that course was an older Castilian gentleman, not particularly given to modish slang.  I’m surprised the word doesn’t appear in British English since generally Iberian Spanish hews closer to European versions of languages while Latin American Spanish is closer to (North) American English.  I wonder if the English word originally comes from Spanish (or more likely French), or the other way around.

    Sorry to hijack the thread, but etymologies are among my favorite games.

Comments are closed.

↑ Back to Top