Contemporary romance writer" Elly Aufdem-Brinke was getting ready for a business trip late this fall that would include a visit to her New York publisher and to a television talk show in Rochester, N.Y. She was a little nervous.
"I'm glad the talk show is all the way up there," she said. "It's good training. And in case I make a fool of myself."
She didn't. The talk-show hosts were personable, and her comments went well. "She was chosen to go because her books are so popular and, also, she's very engaging; she comes across as very natural," said her editor, Nancy Jackson, at Simon and Schuster's new division, Silhouette Romances.
The division's line of books went on the market in May 1980; in 1981, Simon and Schuster said, it did about $150 million in business on those books alone.
Under the pen name Nora Roberts, Aufdem-Brinke has sold Simon and Schuster 15 manuscripts in the past 2 1/2 years, including what Jackson says may have been Silhouette's most popular book, a horsy romance called "Irish Thoroughbred," set in the heady atmosphere of the Triple Crown races.
Aufdem-Brinke is one of Silhouette's leading authors, sought after both in print and in person. She said she stands to make between $85,000 and $100,000 on the seven books she has sold this year alone--all the more impressive considering that she works at home, does her own housework, cares for two sons, Dan, 10, and Jason, 7, and, until last spring, also baby-sat for a nephew after school.
The 32-year-old Silver Spring native married two months after graduating from Montgomery Blair High School in 1968 and worked for a law firm and her parents' lighting company.
By the time she and her husband, Ron, moved to rural Sharpsburg in the early 1970s, she was ready to become a full-time homemaker. The metamorphosis from homebody to publishing world butterfly is not total, she said.
"I don't think I look literary or important," she said, gazing with clear green eyes from beneath a crown of softly permed curls. "I had someone come up to me at an autographing, arching her eyebrows . . . and she said, 'Oh, this is what you do between loads of laundry.' That really got me. Another lad even said, 'You're not what I expected at all.' I don't think I make a big impression on anybody."
But public appearances--anything from autographing sessions to panel discussions--gradually are becoming a way of life, a radical departure from the quiet, rural life that, she says, drove her to write romances in the first place.
Aufdem-Brinke lives in a house she and her husband built 10 years ago, a modest place a quarter of a mile up a steep mountain lane not far from Antietam Battlefield. It's a difficult drive up the mountain in the best of conditions and the house often is inaccessible in winter. Particularly when her children were younger, Aufdem-Brinke's isolation was compounded by her husband's work as a film lighting consultant in the District, which keeps him away at odd hours and sometimes for several days.
"You're really here in winter," Aufdem-Brinke said, "especially if we have a good snow. You can't go to the store. You can't do anything. It can drive you crazy if you don't have something else to do."
That was essentially the frame of mind she was in when her younger son was a toddler and the older one had just started school. To pass time, she baked bread once a week and began devouring the scores of romances her sister-in-law passed along to her. Soon she had absorbed what was then the standard formula. Innocent young heroine meets virile older hero, falls in love and is kept from quick marital bliss by trials entirely of the lovers' own making.
Love scenes (nudity only above the waist, thank you) are called to a halt by misunderstanding or intrusion. Then, 55,000 words into the fray, the difficulties resolve themselves and the lovers march to the altar. Marriage is always the goal; the ending is invariably happy.
"I've always been a reader," Aufdem-Brinke said. "I love horror-story writer Stephen King. But this type of fiction was something new to me. It was probably about a year before I thought it would be fun to try one. I started writing in February 1979 . I'm sure it was February. That's when I was really going crazy."
A little more than a year later she made her first sale to Silhouette, not without a few missteps along the way.
"That first year I was grinding out the scripts, and they weren't really very good," she said. "But when they came back, I knew what to do with them." Everything she's written has been published, "but not in its original form." Her agent sold her first manuscript to a company that prints romances in magazine form. Everything else has been grabbed by Simon and Schuster.
Last spring, Aufdem-Brinke signed a multiple-book contract for six "regular" and six "special" (that is, longer) romances. But her work has become so popular that Silhouette gave her an extension on the contract so she could fit in the writing of a couple of "Superdesires"--longer, sexier romances that have come on the market recently and are in great demand, perhaps because they allow more premarital sex than standard romances.
The particular appeal of a Nora Roberts title that has set Aufdem-Brinke apart from about 4,000 other romance writers in this country is that "her characters are very warm" and "she has some unusual ideas," editor Jackson said. "These books have some really wild flights of fantasy, but you suspend your disbelief because you are convinced by the reality of the relationship."
Aufdem-Brinke's heroines run the gamut from stable girl to lion tamer. Often untried and barely of legal age, they nevertheless outtalk their sophisticated heroes, who "are much more tender than heroes in the past, which is a big drawing card," Jackson said. The overall feeling is "lighthearted rather than oppressive." Some of the books, she said, "are terribly funny."
Because Aufdem-Brinke's rising popularity has paralleled the explosion of the paperback romance market nationwide, she is under great pressure to produce. About 20 million readers (most of them women) from their mid-20s to mid-40s each spend up to $60 a month on the books, Publishers Weekly reported last year. More than half of these readers have some college education and median family incomes of $22,000 or more, the publication said.
In 1981, Silhouette alone sold 60 million books. In 1966, by contrast, when romances made up a minor part of the publishing market, Canada's Harlequin Romances, then the major producer of the genre, sold only 14,000 books in the entire United States.
Aufdem-Brinke, who says she used to "work very much off the wall," writing her first drafts in longhand, now works 10 to 13 hours a day most of the time to keep up with her contracts. She has traded in her old typewriter for a word processor to save time.
A book that used to take eight weeks to complete now takes about a month on the processor, excluding time for "thinking it out and plotting and researching." While she still takes a break when her boys come home from school--"The only thing I would feel guilty about is if I didn't help the kids with their homework"--she said "my house isn't clean" and "I do a lot of microwave rather than regular cooking."
Some of the research is fun, she said. Last year, the family combined a pleasure trip with business, stopping in Houston (a romance writers' convention), New Orleans (the setting of an upcoming book) and Florida (Circus World, where Aufdem-Brinke interviewed performers for her book with the circus setting--the one with the lion tamer).
Most research is done in other books, however. A recent title, "Island of Flowers," makes Aufdem-Brinke sound as if she had grown up in Hawaii, but she has not been there. The setting was created using travel literature her parents brought back from two trips to the island of Kauai.
Because no one knows how long the demand for formula romances will continue, Aufdem-Brinke has put aside for now a long-term ambition to become a serious writer. She has the draft of a mystery novel in her files, along with a couple of romance suspenses "in case that genre ever comes back."