Love in the Afternoon

On my way to lunch at the Authors' Café with Denise Hampton and Christina Skye, two of the Valley's own nationally acclaimed romance novelists, I made a mental list of words reminiscent of this style of literature. Words like forbidden, raven-haired and fondle. I wanted to be able to talk the talk.

Was I appropriately dressed? Should I be wearing breeches that laced up the front and a billowy shirt, open to the waist, showcasing my tanned, glistening Fabio pecs?

Would my lunch companions be two big-haired, blowsy Barbara Cartland types with feather boas, or should I be on the lookout for Jackie Collins in leopard-print stretch pants? I was way off base. Hampton and Skye are two smart cookies -- somehow not what I had envisioned.

Denise Hampton and I got acquainted while we awaited Skye's arrival. Hampton once owned two property management firms, invented an electric lock, and was CEO of her own company. When that went belly up, unable to find a job, she began writing her first book. Following 12 years of research, Winter's Heat was published and named "Best First Historical Novel of 1994" by the Romantic Times. She's been on a roll ever since.

Hampton's most recent tome, My Lady's Temptation, just hit bookstore shelves.

A history lover, or, by her own definition, a "historical sociologist," Hampton researches centuries gone by, looking for something to pique her interest. When she finds it, she builds a love story around it. "I like to give people some history without them realizing they're getting it."

Christina Skye arrived. Hampton and Skye are friends, often in touch by e-mail, and frequently joining each other on the book-signing circuit.

Skye's specialty is romantic suspense, spiced up with adventure, humor and hot romance. Her latest, My Spy, was recently published. She is the nationally best-selling author of Going Overboard, 2000 Kisses, East of Forever and many others.

Like Hampton, Skye came to the romance novel business by a circuitous route. She has a Ph.D. in Chinese classical poetry, worked as a translator, and wrote four nonfiction books on China.

Authors' Café owner/writer Nick Ligidakis sidled up to take our order. When our food arrived, conversation momentarily stopped as we succumbed to our choices.

Denise was rendered weak and flushed after surrendering herself wholly to the gyros. Christina, meanwhile, yielded with wanton abandon to her provolone soup, and I was teased mercilessly by the spring baby salad with strawberries and strips of grilled chicken.

Basking in the afterglow of good eats, we continued our conversation, spent, but exhilarated. What the ladies did not realize was that behind them, caressing my view with a hypnotic beckoning, were the dessert cases.

The two authors' approach to story writing is quite different. Hampton creates a synopsis and follows it to completion. Skye, on the other hand, formulates a basic premise, then "writes the book to see how it ends." Developing a cast of characters, she doesn't know whodunit 'til the very end.

Both agree that in this given genre, a "pair bonding" must occur and end happily. Girl meets boy, conflict ensues, and by the final page girl and boy reach the literary equivalent of riding off into the sunset. If girl loses boy, it's not a romance novel.

Editors generally ask for three love scenes per book. Neither author goes for explicit in-your-face sex scenes, but for something much more sensory, to fan the flames of passion between their characters. "Emotional intimacy is much more dangerous than physical intimacy," says Skye. Creating the tension between characters is part of the fun.

Interestingly, there are virtually no male romance novelists writing without a female pseudonym. The predominantly female buying public wouldn't buy it. "How could a man possibly know what's going on in a woman's head?" is the explanation offered by Hampton.

But there are men out there who are fans of the romance novel. Skye notes that at Arizona area signings men will approach, ask what the books are about, and sometimes purchase them. A longtime resident of New York, she never, ever had men approach her at signings. Both Hampton and Skye receive e-mails at their Web sites from male fans.

And what about those steamy covers? The authors have no control over what their covers will look like, and Hampton never even names her books herself. She favors red and bright blues and greens as standout cover colors. Gold-embossed lettering is good.

We all judge books by their covers. Artwork featuring hunky bare-chested men sells to the female audience. Cleavage sells to the predominantly male distributors, who decide which books will make it onto the shelves.

As a consumer looks over a display of books, "you have about three seconds to capture their attention," says Skye. If you pass that hurdle and your book is picked up, you have 10 seconds to grab the consumer's attention enough to prompt them to open the front cover and get a taste of what's inside. If they get that far, they will often buy.

One of the ladies mentioned frequent cover model Fabio. Mercifully, his time seems to have come and gone. Both ladies dismissed the subject as not worth much discussion. Opting for the far more libidinous, we decided to order dessert.

Giddy at the prospect of so many sweet temptations, the authors left the choice to me. I made a beeline to the truffles, a hint of indiscretion heavy in the air. A whisper. A thrill.

The orange peanut coffee truffle quivered at Denise's touch. Without hesitation she cleft the truffle in twain, and again. We fell upon its silken bounty. I unleashed my sword from its sheath, raised a sinewy, corded arm high above my head and rended the black cherry truffle into thirds. With pagan hunger we consumed its supple fruit with eager lips, our innocence lost. I laughed lustily and wiped my mouth with the back of my large, strong hand. Someone offered me a napkin.

Are the ladies happy in their profession?

"This is the only job where I get paid to be schizophrenic. I talk to people who don't exist," says Hampton. Skye agrees that the creativity is its own reward. Her son enjoys saying, "She lies for a living," and Skye speculates on what that must sound like to his friends.

Both women agree that the only downside of being professional writers is that they are unable to read anything uncritically. Finding she will compulsively edit any fiction she reads, Hampton now sticks with nonfiction.

Having been presented with my own personally autographed copies of My Lady's Temptation and My Spy, I wondered aloud, "What if I read these and I get hooked?" The idea pleased both authors, and they assured me there are plenty more where these came from.

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John Roark