Thursday, April 16, 2015

A Tribute to Historical Romance Icon Bertrice Small (1937 – 2015)


Today, I was to have a very special guest on my blog, one I’d been looking forward to for a long time: historical romance icon Bertrice Small. Alas, she passed away in February. We will all miss her. I could not let this month go by, however, without paying tribute to such a wonderful woman and author.

For those of you who don’t know, she was the author of more than 60 novels, 42 of which are historical romances. They include her first, THE KADIN, which I will review this month, the beloved O'Malley Saga and one of my favorite series, the Border Chronicles, among others.

A New York Times bestselling author, she also appeared on other best-seller lists including Publishers Weekly, USA Today, and the L.A. Times. Publishers Weekly said of her, “Bertrice Small creates cover-to-cover passion.” And, oh boy, did she ever.

In my exchanges with Bertrice, I once made the mistake of suggesting some of her romances were “bodice rippers” (I actually have a best list dedicated to the good ones and some of her novels are on the list). Bertrice didn’t like the label. In her own words, “I write sexy, but historically accurate novels.” She did, indeed. I particularly liked the fact her historicals included real history, and that the history she featured was always very well researched. I do an incredible amount of research for my own stories (hundreds of hours), but Bertrice put me to shame. She spent 5 years researching her first novel, THE KADIN, published in 1978. 

As I said in one of my reviews of her novels, Bertrice had a very different style and told very complex stories. If a reader can adjust her expectations to embrace Small’s unique style, a rich reward awaits, a deep plunge into a historical setting with well-developed characters whose life experiences are realistic for the time and the place. She used long narratives, repeated scenes told through different characters' eyes, "head hopping" from one character's perspective to another in rapid succession when it helped her give the scene depth and a well woven tapestry of the characters’ lives. The hero and heroine might be surprising, too. Not all have one love and live happily ever after. Oh, Bertrice generally gave us happy endings, don't get me wrong, but they might not be the endings you expected, and maybe not with the hero you expected.

In her lifetime, Bertrice won numerous awards including Career Achievement for Historical Romance, Best Historical Romance, Outstanding Historical Romance Series, Career Achievement for Historical Fantasy from RT Book Reviews, a Golden Leaf from the New Jersey Romance Writers chapter of Romance Writers of America, Author of the Year (2006), the Big Apple Award from the New York City Romance Writers chapter of RWA, and several Reviewers Choice awards from RT Book Reviews. 
Bertrice at RT in 2008
 

In 2004, she was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award by RT Book Reviews for her contributions to the historical romance genre. And in 2008 she was named by RT Book Reviews along with her friends Jennifer Blake, Roberta Gellis and Janelle Taylor, a Pioneer of Romance. Well-deserved awards, every one.

Bertrice and I had been talking for quite a while about her appearance on Historical Romance Review. In our conversations, she was engaging and energetic and very excited about her post. She told me, “I want to educate all romance readers about the late 20th century revival of this genre, and those of us who were involved.” 

I originally invited her to be on the blog in October but her schedule prevented her joining me for medieval month and so, we agreed on April, which is classics month. Bertrice wanted to talk about the handful of authors who were “there at the beginning.”

She told me, I usually start by saying, ‘In the beginning there were 7 women called the Avon Ladies, and a guy from Texas named Jennifer.’” She asked me if I was intrigued. I was.

Without Bertrice to guide me, I did a bit of research, and I do hope I got it right.

Bertrice and the legendary group of “Avon Ladies” helped shape the genre. It was hard to nail down only 7 names, but I do know that greats like Kathleen Woodiwiss, Rosemary Rogers, Johanna Lindsey, Laurie McBain, Joyce Verette, Patricia Hagan and Shirlee Busbee were among those Avon authors who were “there at the beginning.” Like Small’s own books, these authors’ stories broke new ground and inspired generations of romance writers.

Tom Huff (aka Jennifer Wilde)
Oh, and about “the guy from Texas named Jennifer,” Bertrice was referring to Tom Huff who wrote historical romances under the pen name Jennifer Wilde (I've just reviewed Once More Miranda, a keeper). Bertrice told me,

“You would have liked Tom, he was a lovely man. Died too young. Still miss him years later. He was clever, funny, and an all around good guy. When he died suddenly, and unexpectedly, I cried as much for him as I have cried for my own family. We used to talk every Sunday afternoon for a couple of hours. My George once asked me what we talked about and I told him, ‘Everything and nothing’.  And that was the truth.” 

“My George” was, of course, a reference to Bertrice’s wonderful husband of 49 years, George Small, who died in 2012.
Bertrice and her George, so romantic
 
I asked a few of Bertrice’s friends about sharing a tidbit or two. Here's what they said:

From Virginia Henley:

“Throughout my career, I never asked authors for quotes. Then suddenly I got a new editor who asked me to get quotes for A YEAR AND A DAY. I was embarrassed to ask, but decided to ask two good friends, Marsha Canham and Christina Skye, who were happy to oblige. Then, I gathered my courage and sent Bertrice Small a copy. Her quote was so enthusiastic and generous, I will be forever in her debt: "Virginia Henley writes the kind of book you simply can't stop reading. I was up till dawn devouring A YEAR AND A DAY!"  -- Bertrice Small.”                                     

From Shirlee Busbee:

“I was fortunate enough to have Bertrice Small, 'Sunny', as my friend for over 30 years. We met (on the phone) while we were both newbies at Avon Books. Over the years the telephone was our link and we spent hours on the phone discussing everything from our publishers (I'm sure there were burning offices in New York) to our families. Sunny deserved that nickname, she was always upbeat, always full of enthusiasm and advice –advice I wasn't always happy to get :D. She was one of the most confident women I ever met and she never let anything, or anyone slow her down or get in her way toward her goal. A great writer, I'm grateful for the large body of work she left behind.  My one regret is that we never got to meet face-to-face, but that's okay –I have fond memories of those marathon conversations. She will be missed.”
 
Not many know that Bertrice suffered from agoraphobia (fear of crowded or public places), which she turned to advantage. “My husband came home one day to find me in the corner of the couch with a clipboard, a yellow lined legal pad, and a Bic Clic in my hand. He asked what I was doing. I answered I was writing a novel. And that is how it all began.”

Bertrice’s last book was LUCIANNA, the third in the Silk Merchant’s Daughters series, set in Tudor Florence and published in 2013. (She had yet to finish the next book, SERENA.) When she and I talked, it was clear she was still writing and still full of ideas for more stories. Such was her love of the stories she created. Her death was a loss for the world of historical romance, but we can celebrate the legacy she left us.

If you have loved her books, please leave a comment and tell me which is your favorite!

24 comments:

  1. Wow. I had no idea she passed. I loved her historicals and she was always in the mix of authors I looked for back when you went to the bok store to buy a new one. :-) Lovely tribute Regan.

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    1. Thanks for stopping by, Sorcha. Yes, she will be missed.

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  2. What a lovely tribute, Regan!!! Beatrice will definitely be missed for years to come!

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    1. Thanks so much, Renee. I loved doing it. And I feel honored that I was one of the last to have spoken with her, via email of course, but still, her winsome character came through.

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  3. As a reader, I would have to say my fave story by Bertrice was her first book in the O'Malley Saga. From that on...I read all I could get my hands on. With her writing, a reader gets immersed completely in her stories because of the depth of her research and description. I am in the process now of getting a copy of each in that Saga so that they will be a set on my keeper shelves. jdh2690@gmail.com

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    1. That's a good move, Janice. I loved her Border Chronicles series. I agree with you on the depth of her research. It was like stepping into another world, something I try to do in my own works. She was a great lady of the genre.

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  4. I had to read this post once, go away, process it, and then come back and read it again. Bertrice Small is not only the reason I read and write historical romance, but was a family friend long before I was born. I'd been looking forward to her guesting on your blog, and it's sad that it wasn't possible, but this was a lovely tribute. It very much felt and sounded like her, especially with the inclusion of her own words.

    Reading that she was still full of ideas for new stories sounds exactly like her, and gave a bit of a boost along with missing her and the books that might have been. Thank you for this lovely tribute

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    1. You are most welcome, Anna. I was so impressed with her enthusiasm for writing another book. Such a gift for life and the stories she brought to so many readers. We are fortunate we can read and re-read them now even though she is gone.

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  5. Great tribute! ! I loved her stories. Historical Romance readers have lost an icon :(

    Thank you!

    Aprilr

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    1. Thanks, April. I agree with you!

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  6. I had no idea my editor had asked Bertrice for a cover quote for my first book until I saw the quote. (It made me cry!) When I emailed Bertrice to thank her, we ended up having a very fun exchange in which she gave me advice that was both wise and full of humor. I will be forever grateful to her for the great cover quote and the advice when I was brand new.

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    1. Thanks for stopping by Margaret and adding your personal note.

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  7. Wow, name one of my faves? There are so many. Of course, I loved Skye O'Malley, but The Innocent is another standout, along with A Love For All Time and Wild Jasmine. Bertrice is already missed, and her attention to historical detail inspired me to be just as dedicated in my work.

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    1. Great reads, all, Barbara. I also loved Betrayed. Think I might post that review next. And I agree, she inspired many.

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  8. A wonderful tribute to a wonderful Author..... Skye O Malley was the first book I read , I the got & kept the series... Keepers everyone.

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    1. Thanks for stopping by, Ann. I think Skye O'Malley is the favorite of many.

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  9. Lovely tribute, Regan! I have to say that Skye O'Malley was my favorite of Ms. Small's. What a strong character Skye was, and I loved how I never knew which way she would go. As an author, Ms. Small was full of surprises-classics.

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    1. Oh, she was that, Keira. I never knew what was going to happen to her characters. Some bizarre twists and turns for certain!

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  10. What a wonderful tribute, Regan. Beautifully done. I cut my writer's teeth on Beatrice Small's novels, as well as those from the other "Avon Ladies." They were the authors who gave me a true and abiding love of historical romance, and I still go back to them for inspiration. I love her quote: “I write sexy, but historically accurate novels.” That's what I aspire to write, too. I do my research, not because I have to do it, but because I LOVE doing it. I get that same sense when I read a Beatrice Small novel. She obviously loved diving into the history and weaving it though her books, and it made them come alive. She inspired so many authors, and entertained and touched so many readers. She will be sorely missed.

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    1. Thanks, it was an honor to honor Bertrice. I agree with you, E.E., her love of the research came through in her stories. You and I also share such a love. I like to think that I am not only bringing my readers a love story well set but also some glimpse of the times and its history. Small did it well.

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  11. 13 years ago I was handed a copy of Skye O'Malley which I totally devoured! I never was a huge fan of reading, but I was swept away with this powerful story of an independent woman who was not afraid of her passion for love and life. Twice more I read the book over the years and this year, 3 months ago in fact, having been ill and finding too much time doing nothing on my hands, I decided I would work my way through the entire Bertrice Small collection starting back at beginning with Skye and her stories. I have literally just finished Besieged and on checking to see which book came next in the series I found myself pressing a link which brought me to your page here.
    Beautiful words written about a beautiful lady, I leave this page with an enormous smile in my heart.
    Simone. England

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    1. Simone, thank you so much for stopping by and leaving a comment. You didn't say which of Bertrice's books was your favorite but I would be pleased to know if you come back and comment again. I'm glad I left you smiling. She was a wonderful woman.

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