If I had a dime for every time I’ve heard that writing is a lonely profession I would (to misquote Stephen Colbert) have a hell of a lot of hypothetical money. But phrases don’t become cliches without reason, and the truth is that many writers spend a great deal of their time inside their own heads. Too much time? Maybe for some. But what it all comes down to is the battle between the writer and the empty page. Writing is not a team sport*. Except, of course, when it is.
Some agents work closely with their writers, helping them fine tune their work. Editors obviously have their say. There are writing partners, trusted beta-readers and workshops galore. But some writers want to share the very act of creation. It is of this last impulse that collaborations are born. And one of the most successful collaborations in the world of Romance is Laura London. Who is sometimes known as Robin James. And who is, in real life, the husband and wife writing team of Tom and Sharon Curtis.
Having met and married young – “in our teens” is how Sharon puts it – the couple began writing together in their twenties. Partly to spend time together, partly for the sense of self-expression, and partly just for fun. Tom’s appreciation of Jane Austen emboldened Sharon to give him Georgette Heyer, and their mutal love for the Regency period inspired them. After six months work and a phone call to Dell, they submitted their first manuscript. A Heart Too Proud was published in 1977, and a publishing legend was born.
For the Curtises, the process was of as much interest as the result. All their stories were created in full partnership. Each had the power of veto, but apparently it was rarely used: instead, ideas they couldn’t agree on were discarded as unworkable. They plotted their books on index cards laid out on the floor. Which, given that their household included two children and assorted pets, gave the phrase ‘plot twist’ a new meaning. Tom typed the first draft, with Sharon’s constant input: Sharon did the rewrites, with Tom’s consultation. “In essence,” said Sharon, “Tom and I began collaborating because we didn’t have the raw common sense to realize it would be a complex and challenging process.”
And also a successful one. Their delightful Regencies raised the bar for everyone who followed. And their 1984 single title release, The Windflower, is on more Top Ten Favourites lists than I could possibly name. It’s a perfect blend of Regency Romance and physical coming-of-age adventure that was inspired by their own enjoyment of Robert Louis Stevenson. The extraordinary story of Merry Wilding and Devon Crandall epitomizes the Curtis’s storytelling genius. It’s hard to describe the story without sounding ridiculous: Merry is kidnapped by mistake; Devon is a nobleman in disguise; there are fires, fevers, and all manner of pirates (including one named Cat who has the distinction of being Romance’s Favourite! Secondary Character! Ever!)… put like that, it sounds outlandish. But it’s not. Instead, it’s gripping, occasionally funny, and very, very moving.
By the mid-80s, the couple was also writing under their own name. At that time, the idea that a man would write a Romance caused no end of talk. But when their 1987 release Sunshine and Shadow won the Golden Medallion Award (Romance’s highest honour, later renamed the RITA Award), the talk was only about their extraordinary prose. As Robin James they went on to write several contemporary novels, and their work was prized by readers and writers alike. Thoughout, they each kept their day jobs: Tom as a trucker; Sharon as manager of a bookstore (where staff were under strict orders not to tell customers about her ‘other’career). The limelight didn’t interest them much: only the work. And then after a decade and a half… they stopped writing.
The Curtises retired from the Romance field in the late 90s. They had growing children, aging parents, and health issues of their own. Readers mourned their departure – and still do. But we understand their decision. No one, no two who wrote as beautifully about life, love and family as Sharon and Tom Curtis could do anything else but put their own family first. They are missed, but never forgotten, and their wonderful books, so layered and assured, remain the prize piece of many a Romance collection.
*novel writing – scripts for film and TV are another beast althogether.
All Chris Szego wants for Christmas is Cat’s book. And maybe a puppy.