Robyn Carr and Kristan Higgins have a strong and supportive friendship, a match made during the at-first-sight moment their eyes met across a crowded convention-center hallway.
Carr reminisces, “I saw Kristan and [fellow author] Deanna Raybourn standing next to each other, two beautiful women with all these RITA award [ribbons] on their badges, and I said, ‘Jesus, I can’t buy one of those!’ Then Kristan said, ‘Poor Robyn!’ and that was it.”
Translation for those new to romance-land: The RITA is an annual award from the Romance Writers of America (RWA) and is named after RWA’s first president, Rita Clay Estrada. Higgins, author of 12 books and counting, won in 2008 and 2010, while Carr (with nearly 50 books to date) has yet to garner a statuette. Higgins’ quip referred to the fact Carr is a number-one New York Times and USA Today best-selling author many times over . . . so, she’s not doing too badly. Higgins’ books have made those bestseller lists many times as well.
Now, back to our story: The two met for dinner soon after meeting and have been talking on the phone a couple of hours a week since then. Carr says with a laugh, “Oh god, we probably shouldn’t let it get out how much time we spend on the phone, so our editors think we’re working ourselves to death.”
“We probably shouldn’t let it get out how much time we spend on the phone, so our editors think we’re working ourselves to death.”—Robyn Carr
Of course, during much of their time on the phone, they are working. They run ideas past each other, talk through plot or character sticking points, share reader feedback both touching and wacky, and “fix the world every week,” Higgins says. “It’s a lonely, solitary job to write, and Robyn is my colleague.”
BookPage recently joined the phone fun with the two Harlequin authors dialing in from their homes in Las Vegas (Carr) and Connecticut (Higgins) to talk about the writing life, their friendship, their new books and more.
The two share a March 25 release date for Carr’s Four Friends and Higgins’ Waiting on You. Although their novels are set on different coasts (California and New York, respectively) and feature different kinds of characters (40-somethings undergoing marriage-related upheaval, and 30-something exes who haven’t left love behind), both stories deal in second chances . . . how to recognize them; decide if they should be embraced or avoided; and ultimately accept that, while things will not ever go back to the way they were, a new way of living can be wonderful, too.
Carr’s Four Friends are Gerri, Andy, Sonja and BJ, neighbors in Mill Valley, an affluent Marin County suburb of San Francisco. The women take a daily morning power-walk—save BJ, who prefers to run solo—and are very involved in each other’s daily lives. Over the course of several fateful months, the women are beset by revelations, crises and struggles that shake the foundations of their marriages, friendships and outlooks on life.
For starters, Gerri discovers that her relationship with her husband, Phil, isn’t as strong as she thought. Twice-divorced Andy despairs of ever finding a loving and stable mate. And Sonja’s dedication to New Age rituals and remedies is shaken when her husband leaves her, and nothing can make her feel better. To their surprise, it’s the usually reticent BJ who steps in and eventually becomes instrumental in getting the women on their various paths to healing.
It’s a powerful tale, one that doesn’t shy away from the tough stuff, whether it’s infidelity, mental illness, domestic violence or the indignities of menopause (not least of which are those damnable hot flashes). Of course, there’s love and sex and hope, too, presented believably and often humorously by Carr’s skilled and perceptive hand.
When asked if Four Friends represents a move away from romance toward mainstream women’s fiction (although, certainly, her multiple-bestseller status indicates her books have long been reaching a massive audience), Carr notes that she’s done women’s fiction before, “a book I really loved and believed in, that every publisher rejected and Harlequin bought, called The House on Olive Street. In a perfect world, I would do both romance and women’s fiction.”
Higgins adds, “Both of us have that crossover in our books. They’re not just about romance, but about life issues, too.” Continues Carr, “Yes, women’s fiction is about issues . . . you have more issues than you have villains. Kristen’s work crosses over, too—you have a child without a parent, other issues women have taken on and are put in charge of.”
And, says Higgins, “There’s infidelity, grief, belonging . . . women’s fiction focuses more on that than romance.” She adds, “A lot of time, I’m criticized by hardcore romance fans” for having what are seen as women’s-fiction elements in her books, but “You always have to write what you love. Writing books is so hard, I can’t imagine trying to write because I think it would sell. I write because I love the story and characters.”
“Writing books is so hard, I can’t imagine trying to write because I think it would sell. I write because I love the story and characters.”—Kristan Higgins
In Waiting on You, the third novel in Higgins’ Blue Heron series, those characters are Colleen and Lucas, former lovers who, to borrow from a movie line, just can’t seem to quit each other. Colleen and her twin brother, Connor, own a tavern in fictional Manningsport, New York. Connor’s the chef, and Colleen manages the place, pouring drinks and charming customers with equal dexterity. She’s also an ace matchmaker, who has been sticking to superficial encounters herself since getting her heart broken a decade ago.
When said heartbreaker—Lucas—returns to town to care for his ailing uncle, Colleen must admit to herself that she’s not ready to truly let him go. To complicate matters, her kooky friends—particularly the delightful Paulie—insist on continuing in their outrageous ways; Colleen’s mother persists in loudly detailing her menopausal woes; and Colleen's brother is being overly protective. It’s a fine mess, one that Higgins detangles with her trademark mix of empathy and wit.
Striking a particularly appealing and relatable balance of emotion and entertainment is something Carr and Higgins both do exceptionally well, as borne out by their devoted fans and stellar sales. That blend of feeling and fun is no small part of what keeps their fans eagerly anticipating their new releases.
Says Carr, “It’s part of romance’s job as a genre, not only to entertain, and have feelings of eroticism and desire, but also to show women what’s good for women . . . to also serve as an affirmation, and hopefully provide an intelligent, reasonable lesson that’s at some point achievable by an average person.”
Higgins agrees, adding, “In well-constructed romance, the characters become role models. There’s a reason they haven’t found what they’re searching for: They haven’t figured it out yet. During the course of the book, they tackle the issue that’s been their special problem all their lives—whether they feel unworthy, or there’s a past event with a grip they just can’t shake—and overcome it, and the relationship is the reward for self-actualization.”
As for the authors, both Carr and Higgins say that their careers—and the active, engaged romance community—are their own reward every day, whether via a productive writing session, a good review or a positive reader encounter.
Higgins, who’s been writing for 10 years to Carr’s 35, says of people excitedly recognizing her in public, “It’s so funny. I don’t think there’s a more ordinary person than me or Robyn. We’re very normal, ordinary people with this extraordinary career. . . . It’s kind of mind-blowing. I’m not used to it, and I don’t want to get used to it.”
Carr adds, “And if you’re brilliant—as Kristan and I are, obviously . . . ha!—you don’t take that for granted. I’ve seen a lot of writers achieve well-known or best-selling status and act as though they’re entitled to it and it’s their due. But remember, there are a lot of fingerprints on our books, most of all the readers’ . . . they make it all possible, and could make it impossible tomorrow.”
(Photo of Robyn Carr and Kristan Higgins courtesy of Kristan Higgins.)