Best-selling romance author Susan Stephens reveals her favourite books
- Credit: Joan Russell
Romance author Susan Stephens talks about the love of her life – books
The sun began to set over the beautiful island of Malta, but the heat remained high, fuelled by the passion shared by the former children’s television presenter and the suave English businessman. They had met for the first time on Monday but, as Friday came to a glorious end, they knew they wanted to spend the rest of their lives together.
Steve presented Susan with a ring from the Hilton Hotel gift shop. It was hardly a Tiffany diamond but she didn’t care. She was engaged to the man of her dreams after a wild, whirlwind courtship and she knew in her heart that they were going to live happily ever after.
If this all sounds a bit Mills & Boon, that’s probably because Susan Stephens, a former Playschool presenter (with Johnny Ball, no less), member of the D’Oyly Carte opera company and backing singer for Cilla Black is also a prodigious romance writer, notching up more than 50 books for the genre’s leading publisher and selling in excess of eight million copies.
‘I’ve got 51 books on the shelves, two in production and am currently working on my 54th for Mills & Boon,’ she said, as we sipped coffee and enjoyed the lovely rural view from her kitchen in Hartshead, Kirklees. ‘I probably write between six and eight books a year. I haven’t run out of ideas yet, and I don’t think I ever will.’
But the Maltese love story between herself and Steve is not one of her fictional romances, it’s how she met her husband, who she married three months later and subsequently raised three children with.
‘I’ve always been quite a shy person, but I’ve never shied away from adventure,’ said Susan. ‘I’m not physically brave like my daughter – she sailed the Atlantic – but I’m daring in my life choices.
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‘I knew Steve was the one from the moment I met him in 1978. The ring wasn’t up to much but it could have been a bit of string for all I cared. My poor mother though. She was mortified.’
She should really have been accustomed to her daughter going her own sweet way though. While Susan made her proud studying piano and singing at the Royal College of Music and as a member of the prestigious BBC Singers, she was not quite so sure what to make of her decision to join Cilla Black for a summer season in Blackpool.
‘My mother came with me,’ said Susan. ‘I was wearing a suit and, very probably, gloves when I arrived at the boarding house and the door was opened by the landlady – a fantastic, fully-made-up drag queen in a leopard print all-in-one. I knew it was going to be a wonderful adventure from that moment on.’
It was during her time on the cabaret circuit that she discovered the joys of the Angelique books, a racy series of 13 French historical adventure novels by Anne and Serge Golon which, more often than not, involved the heroine being sold into a harem.
But it wasn’t until much later, when she won a day with Penny Jordan, an iconic Mills & Boon author, at a charity auction in Cheshire, that she learned she could enjoy writing as well as reading racy romances.
‘She took me out to lunch with her editor and showed me in detail how to structure a story,’ said Susan. ‘She was so generous with her time and expertise. I had been toying with writing and had a few manuscripts in my desk drawer, and she encouraged me to post one off saying “what have you got to lose but the postage”. That’s when everything changed.’
Her novel was accepted by Mills & Boon and, in the 13 years since, she has produced a book for them approximately every two months.
‘What I love about commercial fiction is that it touches people across the world,’ said Susan, whose biggest market is America. ‘Love is a universal language.
‘People are very quick to criticise but, honestly, if they could read the mail I receive they’d soon change their minds. People are genuinely uplifted by these books. They make them feel better.’
More people are reading commercial romance novels than ever before, perhaps because of the emergence of the e-reader (no one can judge your choices on the bus) and pulling power of contemporary genre novelists like Nora Roberts and EL James.
‘There used to be a great deal of hypocrisy about sex in novels,’ said Susan. ‘It was fine for men but not acceptable for women. I had a spanking scene in a book about ten years ago and was criticised for encouraging domestic violence. But, thankfully, authors like Nora and Erika have done their bit to right that wrong.’
The readers of romantic fiction are a voracious bunch, demanding a steady supply of books to keep them satisfied. Susan is usually writing one while proofing a second and publicising a third. She also tries to make it to major conventions, like the Romance Readers of America, to make contact with her fans and keep up to date with their ever-evolving likes and dislikes.
‘Romance books have changed over the years,’ she said. ‘People want much shorter, punchier sentences now. The writing is not as lyrical as it used to be, and everything is told in soundbites.
‘Readers are much more vocal now, and not always in a positive way, but all their opinions matter. They’ve probably read more romance than I ever will – they’re the real experts.’
A few of my favourites
These are the books that shaped my formative years, says Susan, the ones that have stuck with me.
The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley
‘To an only child, the idea of a community I could enter and be part of, even within the pages of a book, was utterly addictive, and the characters were wonderful.’
Heidi by Johanna Spyri
‘My first spirited heroine for whom nothing was impossible.’
Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
‘I simply love the wonderfully drawn characters of each of the animals and the humour.’
Every Beatrix Potter book
‘Naughty rabbits and the terrifying Mr McGregor – a lesson for writing compelling drama with standout characters in a cosy everyday setting.’
Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome
‘Because I was such a scaredy-cat as a child, I admired the children in the book having such adventures. Plus, one of the main characters was called Susan and the adventures took place in the Lake District, where I stayed with a very strict aunt for a week each year – but the beauty of the Lake District more than made up for being terrified.’
Black Beauty by Anna Sewell
‘This was a heart-wrenching journey into a less than perfect world, where events made me want to climb into the book and put them right. I could never look at an animal again in the same way after reading Black Beauty. This book stirred my conscience and awareness of the needs and feelings of animals like nothing else.’
Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume
‘At last, an adult writing about sex in a way I could relate to as a young teen.’
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
‘Another aspirational adolescent to whom I could relate. I had to buy another copy of this book as it fell apart because I read it so many times.’
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
‘This was my first experience of passionate love in a book and the tragic consequences that could follow. I think this was when I realised that, just like life, stories have no boundaries.’