Mary Bly wrote her first play at age seven, a romance starring her siblings. She went on to earn degrees from Harvard, Oxford and Yale, and is a Shakespeare professor at Fordham University. For years, she kept a secret: She was a best-selling author of romance novels under the pen name Eloisa James. Bly, the daughter of poet Robert Bly and novelist Carol Bly, started publishing the books in the late 1980s to pay off her student loans. She went public with her dual identity once she achieved tenure. Call her the thinking woman’s romance writer: She’s written 25 historical tales, set in the 1700s and 1800s, and has six million books and e-books in print in 20 countries. I caught up with Bly on a promotion tour for her latest, “Seven Minutes in Heaven.”
What kind of historical research do you do for your books?
In “Four Nights of The Duke,” the heroine is a romance writer, and there were many in the [1800s]. We only think of Jane Austen because she was an utterly brilliant writer, but also because she was in the gentry. A lot of these women weren’t. But their books sold out on the first day. You have Jane Austen’s name appearing on the subscription list for some of them, so she was reading them. I shaped the plot around the kind of plots women were writing at that time. You don’t have to know any of that to like the book. The books have to exist on different levels the same way a Shakespeare play does. If you happen to be really into the history of women’s writing, that would be an interesting book for you. With my latest three books, I was really thinking about how a woman could become an entrepreneur in the 1800s.
Did women have that kind of autonomy in that period or are you extrapolating modern values to historical characters?
There were wildly empowered women in the period, but not that many. You had to born in the right class and have the wealth and leisure time to be educated and then have an enormously supportive father. As in any age, if a woman is educated and given space to breathe she could become enormously powerful. There were widows running huge estates in the period.
I devoured Harlequin romances as a teenager but somewhere along the line decided or learned that adult lovers of literature shouldn’t embrace this genre. Why doesn’t romance get any respect?
If you look at how the media treats genre fiction as a whole, romance definitely is the most denigrated. I think that’s just pure sexism. This is a genre that’s written by women for women. Depending on what statistics you look at, it’s 46 percent of the market share of every paperback sold in America. And yet it’s consciously denigrated as, ‘oh it must be just sex.’ That’s an inculcated, inherited dislike of anything that implies a woman might become aroused. And many of the things that romance is attacked for are exactly the same in science fiction. But those books are written by men. My last book took me a year, but I constantly have people saying, ‘so how long does it take to rip one out’?
What’s the one thing you know now that you wish you knew growing up?
It really does get better. I keep saying it to my teenage daughter. Middle school may be the bottom, but you can get out of there and meet some people you like and have a life. But I think it’s impossible to know, honestly.
Now that you’re over 50, what’s the one rule you feel you can break with impunity?
I’m much less interested in being liked. That’s something that’s been really formative in my life. My dad, Robert Bly, made his living by going around and reading poetry to large crowds. I traveled with him and I saw how to charm a crowd. He was very, very good at that. So I had a lot of training in charm.
And I’m slowly learning to say no. I can see the end of my working life. That sounds terrible, but it’s not. If you can see the end you can say, ‘is it really helping me to visit Indiana three times this year?’ Maybe it would be better to spend that day and wake up in my own house and realize I don’t have a plane to catch.
What ignites your creativity?
Reading. For writing you really have to be reading constantly.
What’s the riskiest thing you’ve done since you turned 50?
I was turning 50 when my mother died of cancer and I was diagnosed a couple weeks later. We sold our house, sold our cars, uprooted the kids from school, rented an apartment on the internet and moved to Paris. It was a lovely year. I wrote a book called “Paris in Love” about that year. That book has a lot of thinking about what it means to turn 50.
What’s your biggest accomplishment?
I think marriage is very hard and there are a million tiny decisions you make that lead to a success or failure in marriage. I think mine is quite successful and I love him a lot. I’m very happy that I married him and that we stayed married.
What’s the best advice anyone has ever given you?
One of the best pieces of advice I got when I started out as a writer was ‘you’re 50 percent a businesswoman and 50 percent a writer -- and the businesswoman comes first.’ You’re not Tolstoy. There are very specific parameters to make [genre fiction] a success. I run this as a business with a lot of heart. It’s allowed me to have a long publishing career.
What’s your idea of perfect happiness?
You wake up in the morning and you have sabbatical from one of your two jobs and you don’t have any appointments. The whole day lies ahead of you. That is gorgeous, fabulous happiness right there. Time – time is the greatest happiness there is.
Mary Bly/Eloisa James will speak at the Des Moines Public Library on March 21 at 7pm. You can find a podcast of our interview and more information here.