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Writing Humor Comes Naturally
An Interview with Peggy Webb

by Pam Kingsbury

 
 

Peggy Webb has been earning a living at writing romances, columns, and women's fiction for almost twenty years. A native of Lee County, Mississippi, she currently resides in a hundred year old farmhouse outside of Tupelo. The author of fifty-five romance novels, her work has been praised for its' humor and originality. The Accidental Princess, her most recent release, was selected for Silhouette's Readers' Ring Discussion Group. 

 

At one time Mississippi claimed to have the most writers per square mile in America. How are you influenced by place? 

I am steeped in the songs of the South - the voices of its people and its land.  When I enter the mind of a character I hear the speech patterns, the cadences of northeast Mississippi. 

When I create a setting I see the sweet rolling hills I roamed as a child. My daddy was a farmer with a deep respect for the land, which he passed on to me. 

Southern writers love detail and words. In that respect my writing is deeply Southern.  I love particularity the rhythms.  When I write I hear the lyrical beauty of the words.  My books are, on some level, music - the music of the South. 

How and when did you start writing? 

I was born a writer and did my first writing sitting in the hayloft on the farm where I grew up. I became a published writer in the late sixties when I was writing a humor column for two trade magazines, The Water Well Journal and Ground Water Age. At that time I was married to a man in the water well contracting business.  As secretary of the state organization, his job (and consequently mine) was to publish a newsletter. 

In desperation, I created a humor column that was picked up by the magazines. Many years and two hundred columns later, I had my first book published.  I belonged to no writers' organizations at that time and had no one guiding me along except literary giants such as Eudora Welty and William Faulkner. 

I was in graduate school writing my master's thesis while I wrote my first romance. In fact, I had to postpone the defense of my thesis in order to complete the revisions required by Bantam (my first publisher). Happily, my professors at the University of Mississippi were supportive, and I was able to earn an M.A. in fine arts, then later that summer see my first book hit the number one spot on Waldenbooks Bestseller list. 

Today I have the support of my peers in Novelists' Inc. (I write a column for their newsletter NINK), and of the Heart of Dixie chapter of Romance Writers of America. 

What changes have you seen in the romance industry during your career? 

I started writing in 1984 during the boom of romance. The rush of publishing houses to merge had not begun, and many of the houses cashed in on the boom with their own lines (Ecstacy, Loveswept, Precious Gems - all now defunct). 

The market started correcting itself, as it always does, in the late 80s. The shrinking of the romance market was due, in part, to the merger of the big publishing houses. 

Although the number of romance lines has diminished, romance sales have remained strong and healthy.  About fifty per cent of all paperback sales are romance (and nearly forty percent of total sales). 

Other changes I have seen are in the books themselves. I'm seeing many derivative books now -- Bridget Jones romantic comedy clones, Nora Roberts-Linda Howard romantic suspense imitators, and hard-edged murder mystery in the style of Tami Hoag.  From my perspective, many publishers seem to be looking for a "sure thing." 

Fortunately, my publishers (first Bantam, now Harlequin/Silhouette) haven't pigeonholed me, but have allowed me to write outside the boundaries of romance. (The Westmoreland Diaries trilogy, published in 2002 by Harlequin/Silhouette, is one example of this.) 

How do shelf life and sales differ in romance? 

Series romance novels are marketed very much like magazines.  They have a one-month shelf life in the U.S. before they are pulled to make way for the next month's titles (approximately l00 per month). The shelf life of series romance is extended four or five years (sometimes longer) by sales to foreign markets. 

My current publisher, Harlequin/Silhouette, has a huge foreign market. (My books are published in approximately seventeen languages.) Single titles (mainstream novels) have a longer shelf life. Books can stay on the shelves months or even years, depending on how well they sell. 

What awards have your books received? 

My first book, Taming Maggie, gained the number one spot on Waldenbooks' Romance Bestseller list, and earned me the award for Bestselling New Romance Author. Boy, talk about a hard act to follow! When I started writing I never dreamed I'd be living up to my own first performance.  I'm very happy that seventeen years later my books are still earning spots on the romance best seller lists as well as award nominations. 

I just found out that Force of Nature has been nominated for an annual Romantic Times Reviewer's Choice Award for Best Silhouette Special Edition. This is the third consecutive year I've captured that nomination. 

I've had many awards in my career, including a second place Maggie (presented by the Georgia Romance Writers) for Hallie's Destiny; a Golden Medallion finalist award for A Gift for Tenderness; the WordWeaving Award for Excellence for Force of Nature and Bittersweet Passion (two of the books in my recent Westmoreland Diaries trilogy); and numerous Awards for Excellence from Romantic Times. 

I am deeply gratified by this recognition from readers, reviewers and my peers. 

Gregory Macdonald (author of the Fletch novels) and fellow Mississippian Al Young have credited you with bringing humor to the romance genre. How did that happen? 

Fate, I think. 

In the sixties, when I was scrambling around trying to find material to put in the newsletter that ended up on my plate, I created a fictional couple ((Ethel and Smitty Smertz) in the water well contracting industry who got into all sorts of comic jams. (Many of my readers actually thought Ethel and Smitty were real!). 

Writing humor is natural for me, so I put large doses into the first romance book I submitted.  The editors turned it down because it had too much comedy and not enough romance. But after the success of Taming Maggie, Bantam took another look, asked me to plump up the love angle, then brought the book out as Birds of a Feather

Birds of the Feather hit the number two spot on the romance bestseller list.  It has had many imitators, but it is considered to be the first true comedy/romance. 

What advice would you give to aspiring writers? 

Read - not to imitate, but to analyze and learn. 

Find your own voice, and then write the stories you know and love.  

Be true to your own instincts.   

Don't get confused by outside opinions. 

Write because you love it, not because you think you're going to get rich!  Unless the universe is in perfect harmony and you were born with a rabbit's foot in your pocket and fairy dust on your forehead and every clover you find has four leaves, you won't. Trust me on this. 

What was your experience been in moving between the romance genre and women's fiction? 

Crossing genres was an easy leap for me.  One of the best ways to learn the craft is to write romance novels.  Because the parameters of the books are so tight, you are forced to pay attention to your craft. While I don't consider my women's novels to be "better than" my series romances, I do enjoy the extra attention received by mainstream books.  My first women's fiction novel, Where Dolphins Go, has been so close to production as a movie that I had a producer and a director come from LA to scout out locations in Tupelo. (Actually that book is still being considered for film.)   Blues Before Sunrise is also making the rounds in Hollywood. 

This is heady stuff for a farm girl from Mississippi! 

What's your work routine? 

Eight to ten hour stretches drain my well of creativity, so I try not to spend more than five or six hours at the computer. However, the writing process can't be confined to that time frame. I do some of my best writing (working out plots, fine tuning scenes) while I'm sitting in my front porch swing in the sunshine. 

I start my day with meditation, a leisurely breakfast and then some time in my gardens where I clip fresh flowers for the house or tend the flower beds.  Afterward I light candles, turn on good music (usually blues), then indulge in a long bath.  Then fully awake, refreshed and filled with beauty, I go into my office around ten to start the day's work. Around twelve I take a long lunch break that includes time to sit in the front porch swing reading on sunny days or at my piano on rainy days playing the blues. 

I go back into the office around two and work until about six. 

If this routine sounds wonderful, it is!  I am so blessed. 

What are your current projects? 

I'm working on another Silhouette Special Edition, tentatively titled The Accidental Gardner, as well as a novel for Red Dress Ink with a working title of The Real Thing.  ((Sometimes my titles are changed, sometimes not.) I'm also incubating ideas for two more novels in the style of Blues Before Sunrise, a deeply Southern novel currently searching for a home.


Peggy Webb's Author Page at Harlequin

 
 
The Accidental Princess
by Peggy Webb
Silhouette (Special Edition series), 2003
Paperback, $4.75 (240 pages)
ISBN:  0-373-24516-5

      Southern Scribe Review

 

 

 

2003, Pam Kingsbury, All Rights Reserved