Everyone needs a little romance in their lives, even vicariously. Which is convincingly reflected in the publishing world's romantic fiction genre, a $1.3 billion-a-year segment whose titles regularly compete with mystery and thriller novels by A-list authors on the nation's best-seller lists.
In Susan Elizabeth Phillips' case, what's also apparent is that passion on the page works best when it's tempered with a dash of humor her specialty. The New York Times best-selling author has written 21 "women's fiction" books translated into more than 30 languages and regularly travels the world for appearances.
Phillips is the only four-time recipient of the Romance Writers of America's Favorite Book of the Year Award. She was inducted into the RWA's Hall of Fame in 2001 and received the RWA's Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006.
Her newest sizzler, "The Great Escape," is the Bee Book Club's choice for July. In the prequel, "Call Me Irresistible," heroine Lucy Jorik is a panic-stricken bride-to-be and the "seemingly perfect" adopted daughter of a former U.S. president who flees the marriage altar at the last minute.
In "The Great Escape," Lucy shares the adventures she encountered after running out on ex-groom Ted Beaudine and becoming a "lady on the lam." Her road trip begins when she jumps on the back of a motorcycle piloted by Panda, a "hot dude" with an attitude. One thing leads to the next, but not in ways romance fans might expect.
"My books have a love story at their centers, but I also like to write about family and community, and the bigger scale of women in relationship to each other," Phillips said on the phone from her home near Chicago, where she had just finished putting away the dishes from a typical breakfast apple slices dipped in nonfat yogurt with organic peanut butter and honey.
Phillips' main theme involves women with good hearts who have made mistakes "just like the rest of us," she said. "They're trying to find their paths in life. They're on the journey all of us are on to make ourselves better, healthier and mentally more together."
For a writer who can heat up a page, Phillips sounds awfully well, wholesome. It's a persona she cements with this: "There's no way to say it without being corny: Love is the most powerful emotion in the world. If we could turn hatred, dislike and misunderstanding into love, think of what the world would be like."
Phillips' editor and "in-house cheerleader" for 18 years is Carrie Feron, vice president and editorial director for Avon publishing in New York City.
"Susan is so warm and nice, exactly like the characters in her books," Feron said. "When you pick up one of her books, you're in a conversation with her, in her kind world. Maybe some rough patches happen, but ultimately people are lovely to each other. For readers, that's a vacation from everyday life."
She says she's boring
Phillips, who does not say her age, is a former schoolteacher (speech, drama and English) with a degree in theater from Ohio University ("A small state college"). Her journey to publishing success was aboard the archetypal model of perseverance and luck.
In 1976, she and her best friend and neighbor, Claire, began co-writing a historical romance. Months passed, then years. Finally, they submitted what they had half a manuscript and a synopsis for the rest and, incredibly, got an offer from a publisher three weeks later. A year after that, in 1983, "The Copeland Bride" by the pseudonymous Justine Cole was published.
Then Claire moved away and Phillips had to teach herself how to go solo. Which she did with the historical romance "Risen Glory," followed by contemporary romances "Glitter Baby," "Fancy Pants," "Hot Shot" and "Honey Moon." Her career path was set.
The romantic-fiction market has changed drastically since those earlier decades, Phillips pointed out, and such a "lame to fame" scenario would be unlikely today.
"Publishers were working in a hot market and were hungry for new authors," she said. "Historically, romance has been ignored by critics and academics, so we (romance writers) were flying under the radar and could pretty much do whatever we wanted."
Phillips spends a good portion of her life at a computer, making up romantic entanglements for imaginary people.
What about her own romantic moments?
"For me, I like sitting down with my (retired) husband, Bill, and talking," she replied.
"He is brilliant and interesting, and we're both so busy that talking generally about our grandchildren is a real luxury," she explained. "I find that truly the most romantic thing we do."
What about leisure time together? Champagne and a candle-lit dinner, perhaps?
"We do crossword puzzles together," she said. "Our interests are so different that our marriage is like a base camp we each set off from there and do our own things. I love to travel, he does not. He loves golf, I don't like it at all. So we're kind of boring."
As a global traveler, what's the most romantic city she has visited?
"My good friend Helen and I sat in a little restaurant across from the Alhambra, the (Moorish palace- fortress) in Andalusia, Spain, drinking wine and watching the sun set," she recalled. " 'Do you miss Tom?' I asked Helen. 'Not really. Do you miss Bill?' she asked me. 'Not really.' It was funny, because (that scene) was the most romantic thing I have ever seen, and we were perfectly happy with each other."
One hallmark of Phillips' novels is humor, which draws new fans to each new book via word of mouth, she said.
"I didn't know I was funny until I started to write," she said. "I'm not that funny in person, so it feels like (the humor) is being channeled from the characters. But (readers) are just as likely to find crying in my books as they are (laughter)."
And the hot scenes?
"When I write love scenes, there's frequently a lot of laughter in them. Because, let's face it, sex is fundamentally pretty funny. The thing I have to be careful about is when I come up with a really cute dialogue exchange, but it completely ruins the scene. So I have to cut it."
In today's publishing model, the technological inclusion of an author's fans into her or his virtual world has played a vital role in "growing the product" the author and increasing book sales.
Phillips' fans are loyal and legion she has 42,000 Facebook friends alone largely because she lets everything hang out on her website and on her Facebook page. The result among her readers is a feeling of enthusiastic closeness. For instance, her fans call her "SEP" (her initials) and refer to themselves as "SEPPIES."
"I go to book signings and (my fans) will know all kinds of personal stuff about me, and mention things like the cute little vegetable plates I make the grandkids," she said. "I put it all out there. I'm just as prone to tell readers how cute I look one day as I am to tell them how bad I look the next day. Because of (social media and) technology, I feel more intimate with my readers than I actually am."
What can attendees at Thursday's Bee Book Club gathering expect?
"(At my appearances) the women drag their husbands with them, which is a ton of fun," she said with a laugh. "The guys try to detach from the proceedings, but I make sure they undetach and become part of the proceedings. That really tickles me."
Phillips will also talk about book touring, dish about "other romance writers who are friends of mine," and do the SEP Trivia Quiz. That involves Phillips asking questions about her books and herself, and fans responding.
"When they get the answers right, I throw candies into the audience," she said. "It's going to be a really fun evening."