By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 28, 2009
Behind the Rite Aid, next to the house with the American flag, and inside the five-bedroom home with the fish-shaped windsock swaying over the front door -- this is where a former government lawyer with a thing for sex and werewolves lives.
Her name is Irene Daisy Williams, a.k.a. Treva Harte. A veteran of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, she has been doubling as novelist, co-owner and editor in chief of Loose Id, a publishing house specializing in erotic romance literature. (Williams favors paranormal erotic romance, a sub-genre heavy with werewolves. More on the werewolves later.)
Married for more than 20 years to a lawyer at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., Williams oversees from her Falls Church home an unusually profitable publishing house. In the increasingly battered book industry, Loose Id has sold more than 1 million mostly online books since being founded in 2004, netting profits -- Williams won't say how much exactly -- that enabled her to quit her trademark lawyer job last year after 20 years. Erotic romance, it seems, is a hot genre. Even heiress Gloria Vanderbilt, the mother of CNN anchor Anderson Cooper, just got into the game, with her newly released novel, "Obsession: An Erotic Tale," which just so happens to be blurbed by writer Joyce Carol Oates.
For Williams, 50, whose cat-eye glasses and auburn hair emit a calculated puckishness, writing and editing sexually charged and happy-ending fiction provides a reprieve from the challenges of real life in her household: Beyond the door of her writing studio, her 90-year-old mother lives with dementia, and children Jan, 15, and Frank, 18, contend with dyslexia and autism, respectively. Within her personal history, Williams deals with the fact that she never knew her father, who took off after she was born.
"In some ways, writing is one of the few places I have absolute control -- well, I can pretend I have absolute control over my world," she says with determined cheer. "My characters . . . I understand them and I understand where they're going to, and ultimately they're going to have a happily-ever-after."
Growing up in New Jersey in the 1960s and in Arizona in the 1970s, Williams embraced romance writing and, later, erotic romance writing because the narratives conferred freedoms beyond her micromanaged adolescence. And she liked how the story lines, unlike those in mysteries or science fiction, focused on women and were edgier than more esteemed Victorian books about manners and society. "As far back as I remember, I would sneak bodice-ripper books and tuck them under the bed. I would buy them from the grocery," Williams recalls. "I had no siblings, and I also lived with my grandmother. But I did have an allowance. My mom just knew that I was reading big, thick books."
On a recent weekday, Williams sits in her home office, decorated with a framed certificate for excellent government service, her husband's old fencing swords on the wall, and, coincidentally, she insists, a bed. Next to bookcases filled with Nora Roberts paperbacks and erotic romance guidebooks, she continues to crank out her latest e-novel, "Return of the King." In the tale, set in the future, federal agents search for anti-government rebels . . . and a rebel woman meets the foreman of her ranch for the first time . . . igniting a molten-white-hot-volcanic affair . . . and she thinks:
Blue eyes in a tanned face. Blue eyes that looked right into you and almost made you miss that the rest of the man was equally beautiful. Almost. Perfection like that was hard to miss for long. . . . My body was leaning toward him.
* * *
In the genre of erotic romance or "romantica," Loose Id is considered among the top publishers, industry experts say. Doreen DeSalvo, the company's chief financial officer, said the enterprise, which charges $2 to $8 for its online books, grossed $1.3 million in 2008 and is on track to make slightly more this year. Williams said that after profit distribution, she makes about the same money she made as an attorney.
With the same competitiveness that distinguishes the gates of Manhattan's big commercial publishers, Loose Id is not for the rookie or wannabe romantica writer. "Our acceptance rate for new submissions is 4 percent," says DeSalvo, herself an author. (Her work in progress: "Bedding the Beast," about an Italian girl whose father sells her as a mail-order bride to a man moving to America; it's based on her grandmother's life.)
"Loose Id is one of the more respected digital publishers operating now. It's a combination of their quality storytelling, good editing, good business sense," says Sarah Wendell, who co-writes the Trashy Books blog and is co-author of "Beyond Heaving Bosoms," a new romance novel guidebook published by Fireside, a Simon & Schuster imprint.
"What's frustrating to me is that unless it's in print, it's considered not valid, but New York publishers have caught on," Wendell says. "Erotic romance is a way of dealing with the oversexualized image of women in the media -- women are airbrushed and ridiculously perfect. This genre is about a woman's sexual experience and the unlimited amount of variety you can have."
Williams published her first digital novel -- "The Seduction of Sean Nolan," a Civil War story -- eight years ago, but she soon grew frustrated with the slowness and risk-adverse nature of established romance houses.
So, in July 2004, she co-founded Loose Id. The company's freelance editors are sprinkled across the country and include teachers, lawyers, even a World Bank officer from Alexandria. Loose Id's most recent titles include "Georgina's Dragon," "Seducing His Lordship" and "Exploring Savage Places," which capitalizes on today's vampire vogue.
* * *
Back in her home office, Williams returns to typing the tale of sweaty-chested anti-government insurgents. The plot was getting complex: The ranch owner and foreman were savoring the morning, but soon dread surfaced about whether they would be captured.
Rey looked at me and wiped his face off with a damp towel. "Can you hold them off?" He looked ill. Hell, why not? He probably hadn't slept in days. The few hours drowsing in a cage shouldn't count.
She glances out the window to see her son's school bus arrive. She scampers downstairs to the kitchen. "School was good?" she asks Frank in a soft voice. "Did you try to call me?"
"What's for supper?" he asks.
"I think we're having steak tonight, kiddo," Williams says, then asks again, "Did you try to call today, sweetie?"
Her daughter, Jan, a rising sophomore at George Mason High School, is forbidden to read her mother's books but says she is not even tempted. "I am not really into these sort of books. I might be someday," says Jan, who prefers Harry Potter.
And her husband, Mark Mellon -- the guy who works at the FDIC -- is not into the erotic romance, either. "I think it's icky," says Mellon, who also fancies himself a fiction writer. He once published, in the magazine Anthrolations, a short story, set in the future after a nuclear war between India and Pakistan, about a 50-pound cockroach sent to disassemble the Taj Mahal and rebuild it in a nonradioactive location.
"It's this weird little subculture that I write about," he explains helpfully. "But I admire Irene so much -- she writes somewhere close to 300,000 words a year. That's incredible."
Earlier this month, Williams released "Heal," a novel about "werewolves in human form." A blurb on Loose Id's Web site offers this tease: "Ruth's an Ice Queen and she's really cramping Arlin's freewheeling take-what'll-have-you style. Especially since Ruth smells like sex. How can a woman so cold smell so incredibly hot?"
Williams explicates a bit more: "Werewolves like to make love with lots of people, but they're not that picky." She pauses and glances at her husband's fencing swords.
"I'm going to use these in a story, but I don't know how yet."