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.
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.
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!