Bertrice Small was the first professional writer I met in person, and long before I knew that writing stories of loves long ago even could be a job, but as soon as I figured it out, I knew that was what I wanted. I never had anything but support from this lovely lady, even when that support took the form of tough love.
The summer I was sixteen, I had the great good fortune to assist Bertrice Small’s assistant, which mostly consisted of answering fan mail, an experience I still cherish to this day. This up close and personal view of what a working author actually does, besides the making up stories part only cemented my desire to pursue writing. I spent part of every weekday at the desk in the basement, so much that Bertrice joked that I was going to turn into a mushroom, spending all my time in the dark, underground. As I’m sun-sensitive, that was not a hardship, and I found the whole process fascinating. My “job” consisted of typing out responses to every piece of fan mail, already pre-sorted into one of three prepared responses. No email in those days, and so I had to physically type each reply from a template. There were three of those: one for readers who read the latest book and liked it; one for readers who had read the book and did not like it (very few of those) ; and those who had read their first Bertrice book. There were special flags for letters that required a personal response beyond that, and those had to go back upstairs before I could stuff the envelopes and send them on their way.
I became a fan of her fan mail that summer. The stories in those letters proved beyond the shadow of a doubt the profound connection romance authors and their readers share. I still remember the letter from one reader who wanted to name her daughter Skye, but her husband vetoed the choice and they settled for another heroine-worthy name. Years later, I worked at a nursery school at college where two of the preschool students, sisters, were named Silver and Skye. Skye would have been old enough to have been born after that letter, so I always wondered if perhaps their mom was that reader. I never found out, but it’s possible.
That summer, I also had free run of Bertrice’s research library after hours (apart from the shelf that held what she needed for her current book) and it was kid in a candy store time. I had no idea what I was doing, so pulled books down at random and paged through them, hoping I’d catch the magic. Knowing that these books I held in my hands had played a part in creating my favorite novels was a thrill and a half. The best part, though, was yet to come.
I had to write. That was a rule. At the end of the summer, Bertrice would read what I had written and give a fair and honest critique. I. Was. Terrified. I wrote what would be termed YA today, even though that wasn’t what I loved to read (big lesson there – “write what you love” is as important as “write what you know”) and there is no agent or editor pitch that will ever be as nerve-wracking or mean as much to me a sitting on that couch in her office. She pulled no punches, and I am glad she did not. She pointed out every plot hole. Every character blunder. Questioned my adjective choices. She told me to get a dictionary and learn how to spell. She told me to say “fuck” or don’t say “fuck” and not to be coy with allusions. She told me I needed to live if I was going to write (that one, I can safely say I have done) and told me I was going to be terrific one day. I left that meeting emotionally bruised and encouraged all at once. I wanted to write after that, even more, and I did.
I chucked the YA and started a historical romance. Heavily patterned after her own books, I will admit, to the point of pastiche, but here’s the thing. I was hungry to write that book. Starving for it. I raced home from first high school and then college classes to pound out new pages every single day. I lived and breathed that hero and heroine. Bertrice said I could call her anytime with writing questions, and I did. No, I could not give my Tudor era English hero a French first name. Yes, politics of the time were interesting. She answered a lot of questions about the industry and gave me a lot of homework. She never saw that manuscript, which now lives in a storage unit where it can’t hurt anybody, but being treated, not as a kid on a whim, but as a serious novelist myself, did more to sustain me than anything else during that writing.
Fast forward double digit years, and we were both at the Long Island Romance Writer’s Luncheon. Mentor and aunt at once, Madam Bertrice asked me which editors or agents I had wanted to meet at the event, and charged me to stay put. “I’ll go get them,” she said, and she did. “This is my niece,”
she said. “She’s going to pitch her book.” She told them she always thought my wanting to be a romance writer was a phase, but it obviously wasn’t, so she’d do what she could. The rest was up to me. She did it again at another luncheon, a year or so later. Both times, I got requests for full manuscripts. No sales from those encounters, but valuable input and experience.
I’m sad today that I won’t ever be able to hand her a paper copy of one of my books, but the fact is, my books, both past and future, exist in part because Bertrice Small was a wonderful writer, an encourager, a tough teacher and a lover of the great genre she helped to build.