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In Conversation: Guest Editors Zana Bell and Gill Stewart

Zana Bell: Gill, I was surprised when I first learnt you were writing romance – I’d never thought of you as a romance reader, let alone writer. Did you always want to write romance?

Gill Stewart: It’s interesting that you say you didn’t think of me as a ‘romance reader’. That means you must have a specific idea of what a romance reader is. This is something I’ve thought about quite a lot. It’s so easy to be slightly apologetic and say your book is ‘only a romance’. Why ‘only’? I’ve always loved romance. When I was younger I felt I should – and therefore did – read lots of other things too, often things I didn’t enjoy. Now I think life is too short to read stories you don’t enjoy.

GS: And what about you, Zana? You’ve written in different genres, where does romance fit in?

ZB: I love the flexibility of romance – romance readers are very open to unusual locations, strange situations so romance offers a way to write about places and times that fascinate me. Whatever the genre, my books always start with a female protagonist in tricky situation: a convict-turned-pirate, a Victorian photographer, a lawyer engaged in saving an endangered bird. Romance always has women centre stage and gives them bright prospects by the end of the book. No tragic victims here!

GS: Romance is life-affirming: often about a woman finding her true self and being acknowledged as that true self. There’s a line in Bridget Jones’ Diary that says something like he likes me just the way I am. And everyone is stunned that this might be possible. If someone truly loves you, why wouldn’t they love you just the way you are?

I think the two key things that draw me to romance are that falling in love is one of the most overwhelming events in life, and that a happy ending makes for a very satisfying read.

ZB: I love asking couples how they first met and almost every time, they smile as they begin to tell me – the magic of that moment remains strong. Romance writers explore this magic, as their characters conquer fears, issues etc. It’s a very positive genre. Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre led the way for the HFN (happy for now) and the HEA (happily ever after) endings. The story stops when all things are possible for the characters before the next phase of their lives.

There were some well-written entries for this month’s edition of Flash Frontier which didn’t make the final cut because they depicted the death of relationships or the unhappiness of them. These entries lacked the hope, the promise at the end that defines romance. However, they could be good beginnings of a longer romance in that the story would go on to show how the protagonists pulled themselves out of their despondency and embarked on a more fulfilling relationship.

ZB: You have written for both adult and YA audiences, Gill – do you have a preference?

GS: I think it’s more the story that grips me, and only later do I find out if it is YA or adult. I usually like the book I’m working on right now best – which currently means my YA series ‘Galloway Girls’. ‘Lily’s Just Fine’ came out in July 2019. I particularly love Lily because she is feisty and confident – and often wrong!

ZB: Oh I loved Lily too – refreshing to have a dynamic, organised young woman being celebrated. Too often these future leaders are portrayed as bitchy or bossy.

GS: I’m really looking forward to the next book. Can you tell me a bit about it?

GS: The 2nd book in the series is ‘Gemma’s Not Sure’. Gemma is Lily’s best friend but as you can tell from the title isn’t nearly so self-confident. She’s in her final year of school and trying to decide whether she wants to study further or not. The story is about not fulfilling other’s expectations but finding your own way forward.

ZB: What are some of the challenges facing romance writers these days, do you think?

GS: Although there is a huge demand for romance out there, there are also a huge number of writers, so it can be hard to get published. Writing the best book you can is important, but not necessarily enough to get it noticed. You need to be good at self-promotion, which doesn’t come naturally to many of us (introverted) writers. This can be particularly difficult when romance writing is talked about disparagingly. Romance is one of the greatest experiences in life, see my answer above.

ZB: I agree. It always astounds me that books in which women are murdered, battered, victimised etc. can be feted but a book in which a woman succeeds in not only sorting out her problems but finding a decent man to love is disparaged.

GS: What are you working on just now?

ZB: I’m writing a biography about Auckland’s first woman doctor who began working in 1900. She volunteered to treat plague victims, looked after prostitutes, raced to Napier when it was devastated by an earthquake and was a huge advocate for unmarried mums – what’s not to love about her?!

About the Guest Editors

Biographies:

Lily’s Just Fine by Gill Stewart is out now.
Sail away this summer with the unexpected romance of Scotland’s most determined teenager…

Lily couldn’t have planned life better herself. She lives in the best house in town and she’s dating the most popular boy in school. Everything else she can fix. Mum’s apathy? On it! The stuffy gala committee? Watch this space! Tom has enough on his plate without trying to drag Newton St Cuthbert into the 21st century. His sister is sick and there’s nothing anyone can do. Not doctors, not his parents, and certainly not Lily Hildebrand.

More about Zana Bell’s books can be found on her website.

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