SEALs go from superhero to sex symbol

May 8, 2011

Ever since an elite unit of Navy SEALs stormed a fortresslike compound near Islamabad, Pakistan, and killed Osama bin Laden, people can’t get enough of the SEALs. There are some who want to know what it’s like to be one, and others who want to know what it takes to become one.

Then, there are those who want to know what it might be like to, well, “be” with one.

The serious-minded can sift through countless articles and hours of documentaries. The more prurient can mine an entire universe of Navy SEAL romance novels. There’s the “Tall, Dark and Dangerous” series by Suzanne Brockmann or the “Tempting Seals” books by Lora Leigh.

The appeal of a clean-cut Navy SEAL in the land of “lace-wristed dukes” and longhaired Fabios is simple.

“For readers, Navy SEALs are superheroes without the spandex,” said Pamela White, a journalist and romance novelist whose pen name is Pamela Clare.


l "Navy SEAL Security" by Carol Ericson. (COURTESY OF HARLEQUIN)

Publishers are already bracing for a flurry of Navy SEAL-themed pitches and manuscripts in the coming weeks.

“When something like this happens, it is going to be huge,” said Gail Chasan, senior editor at Harlequin Enterprises Special Edition, the Ontario-based publisher synonymous with the romance genre.

Chasan need only look at the nonfiction-
bestseller-list world to know. “SEAL Team Six: Memoirs of an Elite Navy SEAL Sniper,” which has not even been released, is already No. 5 on Amazon’s bestseller list.

Beyond publishing, the interest in all things SEAL is just as rabid. Sales of merchandise at the Navy UDT-SEAL Museum in Fort Pierce, Fla., are up 200 percent, said spokesman Rolf Snyder. In Chesapeake, Va., ex-SEAL Don Shipley has been flooded with calls and e-mails seeking information about his Extreme SEAL Experience camp. There are SEAL movies in the works, including one by Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow. And Discovery Channel plans to air an “insta-mentary” called “Killing bin Laden” on Sunday.

White lucked out. The release of her Navy SEAL romance novel “Breaking Point” happened to be scheduled a few days after bin Laden was killed.

Usually it takes as long as 18 months for a book to go from manuscript to store shelves. E-books can take a few months. So publishers are cautious about placing bets based on short bursts of interest in a particular subject.

“When ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ came out, we had a discussion about, ‘Do we think pirates as heroes will come back?’ But it never caught on,” said May Chen, a top editor for Avon Romance, part of HarperCollins Publishers.

Since Navy SEAL romance novels first appeared in the mid-1990s, they have gone in and out of fashion. In 2009, Marliss Melton, who has written a successful series of Navy SEAL romance books, was dropped by her publisher, Grand Central Publishing, because it wanted her to write about the theme du jour: vampires. She is self-publishing her next SEAL effort, “The Protector.”

On balance, though, Navy SEAL romance novels have proven to be reliable sellers in the romance suspense category, and several have made the New York Times bestseller list, including “Dark Viking” by Sandra Hill, which features a SEAL who travels in time to the land of the vikings, one of seven viking Navy SEAL books she’s written.

“The progression into Navy SEALs” from vikings “was a natural one,” said Hill, who can trace her family tree back to the 10th century and a viking called Rolf.

Romance fiction sales as a whole hover around $1.4 billion annually, and 90 percent of the readership is female, according to the Romance Writers of America.

The woman credited with launching the Navy SEAL mini-genre is Brockmann, who decided to feature Navy SEALs in romance novels after reading a magazine story about “Hell Week,” the toughest part of the Basic Underwater Demolition training program that aspiring SEALs are put through. Less than a third typically make the final cut.

The resulting book, “Prince Joe,” “was very different than anything we had ever done. It was an odd theme for a book and an odd profession for a hero to have,” said Chasan, her editor at Harlequin. “It plunged readers into a world they were not familiar with at all. At the same time, it really was a classic romance freshly told, and we were able to build on that.”

Brockmann has now written 26 books featuring active-duty or retired SEALs. Though she is a longtime military history buff, she admits that in the early days she winged it a little, relying on her memory of “Star Trek” episodes for rank and titles.

“When I started, there wasn’t that much information” about the SEALs, Brockmann said from her home in Sarasota, Fla. But then there was surge of interest after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and again in 2009, after a SEAL unit rescued an American captain from pirates. Now there are Web sites, YouTube videos of their training and cable network shows. The increased public awareness, however, has meant more homework for the authors who have followed in Brockmann’s footsteps.

“There is so much you have to know. The way the teams work, the training the men have gone through. Where they do their missions,” said Melton, a former linguistics professor at the College of William & Mary who published her first SEAL romance novel in 2002. She has a former Navy SEAL commander read over her work to check for errors.

That attention to detail is important because although romance novel readers might love unrealistic happy endings, they also want a story and characters that are plausible.

Romance authors “are writing about the human experience for readers today, so whatever setting — the 1600s, another world inhabited by vampires who are hotter than hot — readers still want something that makes sense to them,” said Amy Pierpont, executive director of Grand Central Publishing’s Forever romance imprint.

That desire for realism extends to the female characters, who, unlike heroines in decades past, are not easily swept off their feet. For instance, Natalie Benoit, the heroine in White’s new book, considers SEAL Zach MacBride with wariness: “It wasn’t right for any man to be so dangerous and so sexy at the same time. Her adrenal glands and her ovaries were locked in a shouting match now, the former insisting she needed to run away fast, the latter wishing he’d kiss her again.”

Benoit, like all of White’s heroines, is a journalist who isn’t afraid to venture into dangerous places. And that’s par for the course these days, writers and editors said.

“You definitely get some reader backlash if a heroine is too mild-mannered or too apt to acquiesce to a man’s needs,” Pierpont said.

Pierpont and others believe therein lies another aspect of the SEALs’ appeal: As the female characters have become more high-powered, mirroring the rising education and achievement levels of romance novel readers, the male love interests have had to step it up a notch. A Navy captain might have been dashing enough 20 years ago. But in today’s world, where women are secretaries of state, CEOs, single parents and soldiers, a guy’s got to have more to offer than a pretty uniform. And what man can offer more than a SEAL, the product of the military’s toughest training regime?

“They have all of these abilities that the average guy doesn’t even have,” White said. “They appeal to the side of women who want to know there are really strong men in the world who aren’t afraid to take responsibility. SEALs are not not going to pay their child support. They are not couch potatoes who don’t care. They are active in making the world better.”

In the romance world, the competency of SEALs knows no bounds. “They are trained from Day 1 to notice the tiniest detail,” Melton said. “A man who can pick up on the smallest little nuance is bound to be able to please a woman, if you catch my drift.”

Annys Shin has been a staff writer at the Washington Post since 2004.
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