For love and money: Alumna Meggin Cabot
follows her heart to success
by Leora Baude
Q: How did you get started as a romance writer in the first place?
A: I have always written stories. It was my hobby. After a while, I had so many romances on my hard drive, it was getting ridiculous. Everybody I knew kept saying to me, “Why don’t you try to get published?” But I loved writing so much that I was afraid if I sent one of my novels to a publisher and it was rejected, I would be crushed, and I would eventually grow to hate my beloved hobby.
Then my father died. When someone you love dies, it puts things in perspective. I realized you have only a limited amount of time on this planet, and if you spend it sitting around being afraid of rejection, you will never know what you could have accomplished, if you’d just tried. So about a week after my dad’s funeral, I sent my first manuscript out to a publisher.
And it was promptly rejected.
After being rejected a lot, I realized my manuscripts were not getting to the people they needed to in order to have a solid shot at publication. I needed an agent. I went to the bookstore and found a guide on how to get an agent. I then sent query letters (I copied mine straight out of the guide) to agents all over Manhattan. They all sent me rejection letters — except one. That one became my agent.
A year after taking me on, my agent sold my first book, Where Roses Grow Wild, a historical romance I wrote under the name Patricia Cabot, to St. Martin’s Press. That agent has since gone on to sell 20 more books of mine.
Q: What are your work habits as a writer?
A: I have a lot of trouble getting up before nine o’clock. So I get up around nine and try to write all day, stopping only for lunch or the occasional trip to the gym. I quit writing for the day when my husband comes from work or when E! Fashion Emergency comes on at seven, whichever comes first — though if I’m on a roll, I’ll sometimes keep writing until after midnight.
Q: How do you approach writing a novel? Do you start with a rough sketch, a detailed outline, or do you just start writing?
A: I know writers who just start writing, and I can’t figure out how they do that. I have to have the entire story planned out in my head — down to the last detail, like the characters’ names —before I can even consider starting to write it out. The majority of my books right now were sold on proposal, which means I haven’t actually written them yet — I just have synopses for them, generally five to 10 pages. Often during the course of writing the book, however, I find that certain things I planned in the synopsis simply won’t work, and so the story changes. But it always remains true to the original premise.
Q: How fast do you write?
A: My goal is to write 20 pages (double spaced) per day. Do I accomplish this goal? Sometimes. Sometimes I write more than 20. Sometimes I write only 10 — sometimes I write none. But 20 feels good to me, so I aim for that.
Q: Are you able to support yourself solely with your writing?
A: Yes. Even before I sold the film rights to The Princess Diaries, which will be released next fall as a feature-length film from Disney, directed by Garry Marshall, and The Mediator series, which was purchased by Artists Management Group, I was able to support myself on my romances. And should I ever suffer a catastrophic case of writer’s block, I have plenty saved to see me through it.
Q: How much research do you do for a historical romance?
A: I’m not wild about research. My idea of research, for instance, for the story I’m doing for EmailShows.com, The Boy Next Door, which is a romance between some journalists, was to reread Fletch by Gregory MacDonald and watch the Ron Howard movie The Paper.
Romance readers, however, are real sticklers for historical accuracy — at least, my readers are. So I have to research each of my books very thoroughly. I generally do this by calling an expert in the field. For instance, my next romance, Lady of Skye, which will be out in January 2001, takes place in the Scottish Highlands during the cholera epidemic of 1847. I called an epidemiologist I happen to know (Melissa Ehman, BA’87) who filled me in on exactly what the popular thinking on cholera was back in 1847.
Occasionally, I will foolishly write a book about something none of my friends have any expert knowledge of — for instance, Educating Caroline, a historical romance to be released in summer 2001, features a hero who has invented a revolutionary kind of breech-loading revolver. I had to spend hours looking up facts about 19th-century firearms. Basically, I had to do all that research for something that appears in maybe one sentence of dialogue. But if you are not trying to the best of your ability to remain within the confines of historical accuracy in your historical fiction, what is the point?
Q: How much do you base your characters on real people? Do people ever recognize themselves in what you write?
A: My goal when I set out to write a book is to invent a world — a fictional world. That said, I know that occasionally, real people have crept into my fictional worlds. This has been most unconsciously done, however, and whenever it has been pointed out to me, I have done my best to correct the matter.
I believe that few writers can resist writing about people they happen to know. But I personally feel that these references should be disguised to a degree that the people I am writing about cannot recognize themselves, unless the portrayal is a flattering one. At the very least, it should not be immediately apparent to your friends and family that you are writing about, say, Aunt Gwen, unless it is a well-intentioned, loving portrait. It would be preferable for your friends and family to say, “That sounds like Aunt Gwen … but she isn’t four foot eleven with a mustache, so I guess it’s not her after all.” That way, Aunt Gwen is able to preserve her dignity. Your friends and family are all you have. Why alienate them for the sake of some book?
Q: Do you aspire to a more prestigious or "literary" career? How would you assess the value of what you write?
A: There seems to be a stigma attached to writing popular fiction that has always confused me. It is as if writers of popular fiction are condemned to occupy an illicit role in the margins of literature, as if there were something fundamentally tainted about the mass market. But the opposite of popular fiction is unpopular fiction, and who wants to be writing books that no one reads?
I write what I write because it gives me pleasure. If I had no writing contracts or movie deals, I would still write exactly the kind of stories I am writing right now. The fact that these stories are being published, and that people are paying money to read them, is an inexpressible joy to me. It does not trouble me that none of my books are likely to win Pulitzers. To do what you love is what life is all about, and to be paid for it ... well, what could be better than that?
Q: What kind of reactions do you get from people when they know what you do?
A: Most people, when they hear about the romances, ask about sex. Do I base my sex scenes on my real life sexual experiences with my husband? Do I enjoy researching my sex scenes? Have I ever written about such-and-such position? And so on. These questions are, of course, asked by people who have never read a romance, and so think that all they are about is sex. They never ask about my research into 19th-century firearms or the European cholera epidemics of 1847.
People are only just now starting to ask about the young adult novels. They always want to know, “How do you know so much about teenagers? You don’t have any kids.” Well, the fact is, I was a teenager once, and I remember what it was like, in all of its angst-ridden horror. Also, I worked for 10 years in a freshman dormitory at New York University. If that doesn’t put you in touch with the teen psyche, I don’t know what will.
Q: Do you think there is a conflict between romance writing and feminism?
A: Most romances today feature heroines who are financially and emotionally independent, think for themselves, and certainly do not need the hero ... though they know that if they happened to get together with him, their lives would probably be a lot more fun. Despite the fact that romance novels constitute 54 percent of popular paperback fiction purchased in the United States, generating $1 billion in annual sales, and that more than 41 million people in the United States alone read them, romantic fiction continues to be marginalized by its detractors, who are predominantly male. It is telling that an entire genre, which is written for and by women, would be labeled this way — especially given the fact that the average romance reader is a college-educated woman who works outside the home, and that on any given week, at least five of the top 10 best-selling paperbacks in the country are romances written by female authors who are generally earning upwards of seven figures per book. I do not think that, in light of these facts, it can be said that there is a conflict between feminism and romantic fiction. The conflict, I believe, is in our society’s perception of women and the books they like to read — and write.
Q: What is your role in the filming of The Princess Diaries?
A: My role in the filming of The Princess Diaries is as follows: They offered me a whole lot of money for the screen rights. I said okay. They gave me the money. I expect to be invited to the premiere.
I do not know anything about filmmaking, so I cannot imagine my input would be at all valuable to anyone. Nor am I convinced that I want to know about filmmaking. I prefer to sit back like the rest of the audience and marvel at the magic that is Hollywood.
Q: What do you like best about being a writer? And what least?
A: Best? I get to sit around and make up stories all day ... and then someone sends me a check for them! Least? There really isn’t anything I don’t like about my job.
See also: On reading romances: A story with a happy ending