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Author Podcast: Zoe Archer


Romance novel sales last year were an astounding 1.4 billion dollars. Statistics show romance readers are predominantly middle class, educated and married. BookBuffet was intrigued to speak with a talented new writer, Ami Silber who is an Iowa Writers' Workshop graduate who writes romance under the pseudonym Zoe Archer. Listen to the interview and discussion on the genre, her literary roots and of course her new book Lady X's Cowboy (Dorchester)


March 02, 2006


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Part I: Influences


BB: Ami, thank you for speaking with us today.  Why do you like writing romance novels, and how they differ from ‘serious literature’?

AS: I like romance novels.  I think what initially drew me to them was the combination in my background of academia and doing historical research with fiction.  Also, they’re very satisfying to write as there is a certain degree of rigidity in terms of the structure, it's kind of nice sitting down each day and knowing exactly what you need to accomplish. 

I find sometimes, with writing literary fiction, the part that is so great about it is that it’s very loose and flexible, but on the other hand that can sometimes be very frustrating.  Knowing what I need to get done that day makes writing romance, I hesitate to call it easier, but maybe a little more structured.

BB: That’s interesting, we’ll get back to that point further on.  Why and how did you choose your pen name?

AS:  I chose a pen name because I also write literary fiction, and I wanted to keep the identities separate from one another.  Not necessarily hidden from one another, but just because if someone wanted to read my literary fiction they would go to Ami Silber and if they wanted to read Romance fiction, they could go to the romance section of the bookstore and look under ‘Zoe Archer.’ []

I picked the name because, initially, way back when I was in high school and contemplated writing them, I wanted to use a pen name. I thought I'd use my middle name and the name of the girl who introduced me to romance novels, but I didn’t really care for either of our names [laughs], and it was time to come up with a new one.  I knew I wanted the last name actually to begin with the letter ‘A’ because that would put me at the front of the bookshelf, and I was brainstorming ideas with my significant other and...  I wanted to go with a name that, if you called me by that name it wouldn’t seem too outrageous and Zoe seemed applicable.  Also it was our initials, ‘Z’ for Zack’s name and ‘A’ for Ami.

BB: Ah, so there’s romance all the way through this.

AS:  Exactly, and also Archer conjures the mythological images of love with arrows, amore, and cupid.

BB:  Very good.  Now after obtaining your Masters’ from UC San Diego where you studied, as you mentioned, Medieval and Renaissance literature, you then embarked, rather circuitously after winning a literary competition, onto your MFA at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop.  What was that like?

AS:  Well, actually, when I was at UC San Diego I studied eighteenth century literature and seventeenth; I actually studied Medieval and Renaissance literature as an undergraduate.  I [ended up doing] a large part of English literature, except the nineteenth century. 

Then, I did win this prize through Glimmer Train Press and I started getting some attention from agents who wanted to see manuscripts.  Of course all I had was the thesis I was working for my PhD, and that was not something anybody was interested in at that point.  So I applied to all these different programs and got accepted to the Writers’ Workshop. 

There was some initial trepidation about going, because aside from the first six months following my birth, which was in New York, I had lived in California my whole life.  So going someplace very far removed from anywhere I had ever experienced geographically and socially was a little nerve-wracking, but I knew that the program was well esteemed so I figured it was worth the risk to try it. 

It was a very competitive program.  The fiction writers I believe were supportive of one another, but at the same time, everyone had their eye on the professional prize.  They wanted to pursue writing fiction for a living so there wasn’t a lot of room for hugging and trust exercises, you had to sort of get down to work. 

But of course when I first got there, I was still sort of rattled and I had left my significant other behind for the duration of the program, which was two years.  It took me a while, several months actually, before I really could get down to writing.  I only started hitting my stride, as far as writing was concerned, a few months before it was time to leave.  Which made me kind of sad, but at least I knew I was headed in the right direction when it was time to leave. 

BB:  Did you have any favored professors or any famous co-students at the time?

AS:  Well one of my favorite professors was Elizabeth McCracken who wrote The Giant’s House and Here’s Your Hat, What’s Your Hurry, I think the last novel she wrote was Niagara Falls All Over Again.  She was great; she was very encouraging. 

Ethan Canin was also one of my professors and I liked him a lot because he had a very structured workshop. 

Marilyn Robinson was also one of my instructors and I liked working with her a lot.  I guess she was working on Giliad at the time, although she never mentioned it to me (laughs). 

I guess one of the most esteemed people who I knew when I was at the Workshop as a student was ZZ Packer, she was a year ahead of me and I think it was pretty obvious to everybody at that point that she was going places because she really was a marvelous writer... 

Part II: Of Dukes and Dudes


BB: Now Lady X’s Cowboy is your first published novel, is that correct?  Or have you published something else under Ami Silber?

AS: I have published some short stories under Ami Silber but I have never published a full-length novel as of yet.

BB: This is a story about an orphan Colorado cowboy named Will Coffin who travels to London in search of his relatives, and he meets there and rescues the widow Lady Xavier from ruffians who were hired by George Price, who is a rival after her business. 

Of course, Lady Xavier is beautiful, rich and restless, and despite having turned her husband’s small brewery—Greywell—into a modern and profitable operation; London society, we discover, has a disdain for women in business.  How did you come up with such an unlikely cast of characters?

AS:  I’m trying to remember the genesis of the idea and I can’t remember specifically what it was, since it’s been a little while since I sat down to write the book.  The character sort of evolved as I determined what I wanted the story to do, how I wanted to depict these specific individuals. 

I’ve discovered in historical romances in particular, the prevalence of titled people; there are so many Dukes and Counts running around England you would think there is actually nobody left to stoke the coal. 

So I wanted to sort of explore and explode some of the myths of the aristocracy with Lady Xavier.  The reason she is called Lady Xavier is her husband purchased his title.  Otherwise, if she'd inherited the title she would have been called something else instead of Lady Xavier, which is her last name. 

The title in fact sort of suggested why she would be called ‘Lady X’ instead of something else.  I liked the title, Lady X’s Cowboy because it reminded me a lot of the painting by John Singer Sergeant, [Madame X created somewhat of a scandal in its day] so I was thinking about that.  I was also interested in exploring the myth of the American West.  Not just the West itself, but also the way it was mythologized, even at the time it was happening. 

BB: Yes, such a short history but people seem to think it stretched on for longer than it did. 

AS:  Exactly, and I think even in the context of the book, Will Coffin makes reference to the fact that there is only so long that somebody can be doing this not only because the physical risks of being a cow pusher are so high, but that they were kind of a dying breed, railroads were coming, barbed wire was coming, the whole shape and scope of the western landscape was going to be changed completely. 

So I wanted to catch the nexus between all these different cultural events.  Having the American, and I would guess the majority of my readers are American, as our way into English society, and exploring it through an outsider’s eyes, but not necessarily somebody who aspires to be part of English society but just someone who is observing it, using their sort of American, democratic, humorous approach to viewing it. 

BB: Now I was impressed by the amount of research that must have gone into Lady X’s Cowboy.  Reviewers have already pointed out the rich details about breweries, which I didn’t know very much about myself and found that interesting.  But when you included Bull Durham Tobacco in the book—that’s when I had to pause, because the only cowboy that I have ever met and known was an eighty-year-old guide and outfitter up in the interior of British Columbia, (who incidentally took young Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip on a horse-pack trip when they visited the West years ago. )

He was efficient at rolling Bull Durham with one hand while riding on the back of a horse steering with the reins in the other hand.  He used whole wheat papers as he said, “For the added nutritional value,” and I know for a fact that Bull Durham hasn’t been around for many years.  So tell us about your research. How do you flesh in your stories, and what is you methodology?

AS: Well, again as part of my graduate student background, I am sort of a sucker for doing research. I like digging around in university libraries and finding tidbits of information that can fill out the knowledge, not only for my book, but for myself.  Also, of course, the internet has revolutionized the way people conduct this kind of research. You can find an amazing amount of information on there.  For example, I found covers from dime novels, as well as a dictionary of western slang

So as I start to develop the plot, I think about what the characters need to know.  I have a research library of my own at home that I poke and prod into, and when I go to used book stores in particular, I’m always looking in the history section because you can find books that are out of print, but yet are so marvelous in terms of the information they contain.

When it came to thinking about Lady Xavier, it was like, where would she make her money? And what was a kind of profession for the new arriviste class? Beer-making and brewery owners were all cited as being exceptionally wealthy, so that sort of led me down the path to learning more about beer, which I knew very little about. I actually don’t really drink, so I learned a lot about it myself as well.

Part III: The Business of Romance


BB: Now I’m going to digress a bit from my question line here because I wanted to find out more when you talk about arrivistes, and just who the archytypes are when you’re structuring romance novels as opposed to your literary fiction.  Tell us more about the archytypes in romance novels and how it's structured.

AS: I think especially because times have changed, the historical romance novel in particular, even though authors are writing about historical time periods, the decisions the author makes in terms of who the characters are and what they want, how they go about getting what they want, their social view, is colored and characterized a lot by the time period the author lives in, our contemporary period.  So I think the archytype of the heroine has changed with our own cultural needs. 

Also, for me anyway, when I read romance novels I see particular trends that I would want to diverge from in the interest of my own, I would hesitate to call it a political agenda, but I certainly have my own ideas.  I try to invest the archetype with my own particular spin on it.  I think that the heroine who is purely decorative and kind of sheltered has changed a lot.  She is no longer that individual, especially now that the readers are women who work and whose lives consist of going out into public and I think they probably want to see a heroin who reflects a bit more of their own experience. 

Heroines, especially in historical novels, are getting older.  Historically, heroines were eighteen or nineteen but they have started getting into their twenties, which for a historical time period is pretty advanced for a woman’s age, but I think it had a lot to do with what the readers wanted the experience for the heroine to have and her understanding of the world. 

BB:  Part of the humor of your book is, of course, the contrast between the British high society and the brash young American, and the manners and colloquialisms that he brings.  You use words like ‘reticule’ for Lady Olivia’s purse, and she plays Mozart and Beethoven whereas Will wears a Stetson and spurs, and comes back with all these Wild West retorts. 

I guess you answered my question earlier in your reference to using the cowboy dictionary of phrases that this book includes: “as cool as a Dakota breeze,’ ‘a hundred fireflies of awareness,’ ‘slinking up a whipped mule.” I found myself waiting for the next quip, what he was going to come back with?  That part of your research was obviously fun. 

But after all the blushing and the romantic buildup, Olivia and Will’s consummate act occurs on page 198.  What sort of liberty do you have with these sex scenes?  I’m curious to know what sort of dialogue goes on between you and your editor?

AS:  Well, it’s interesting, because the amount of sensuality, as sex is referred to in the business, is really dependent on what the author wants.  There is a very wide spectrum now in terms of what readers are buying and reading, what they want, and what publishers are publishing.  The ‘purple prose’ of the authors of the Seventies has given way, I would hesitate to call it clinical, but I don’t think the wildly overblown terms for various parts of people and what they are doing with them is pretty much gone because I think people are more candid about sex now so they don’t have to cloak it in this kind of flowery prose.

BB:  Well you know the sort of analogy I drew was the difference between watching soft pornography versus the French Veriete films, where it’s very grainy, very real, not always attractive kinds of scenes, but it depicts humanity in all of our basic passions.  I was wondering how the romance genre has evolved, what sort of guidelines are there so that when someone walks into the romance section how do they know they are picking up something that is bordering on salacious?  Is there any sort of guideline for people who are purchasing romance novels that you use?

AS:  It's very interesting, because within the last couple of years there has been a burgeoning, and actually very popular, new sub-genre of romantic fiction which is called Romantica, i.e. a blending of romance fiction and erotica.  So to some extent people might consider that genre to be more, if you will, pornographic, because it is more explicit and also because the sex acts might deviate beyond some of the more standard elements that we’re familiar with. 

The best way I think for a reader to know what they are getting when they are picking up a book, and I think the books can run the gamut, is by reading the reviews.  The reviews, in almost any magazine you pick up, states the level of sensuality; is it going to be warm, is it going to be hot, is it going to be NC-17, is it going to be G?  They don’t necessarily put it by the Motion Picture Association’s rating scale, but they will let the reader know ahead of time what they’re getting. 

Romance readers are very savvy. They do wander and they like to pick up books and look at them, but they also spend a lot of time talking to other readers. They read reviews, so generally if they pick up a book they won’t be absolutely shocked by the content if, say, it turns out to be a novel that has more explicit sexual elements.

Part IV: Structure


BB: The next question has to do with something we discussed earlier that I wanted to get back to, and that is the formula of a romance novel. 

In Lady X’s Cowboy, the romantic plot is delayed.  You have the couple getting together, you know they love each other, but of course they can’t be together and we have to get through the rest of their ordeal which has to do with Maddox, who has been hired by Price and his nastiness before we come to the end.  Interestingly enough, Will’s bravery is matched by Olivia’s corresponding wiles because she has to destroy Price’s reputation and save her brewery business as much as he needs to be the tough guy and take care of all the dangerous aspects.  So how do you determine the formula, where you’re going to draw the reader through the story?

AS:  Well, in essence all of the external obstacles that are put in front of the hero and heroine are serving the primary aspect of the romance, which is the romance between the hero and the heroine.  No matter what the villains—be they physical, emotional, or institutional—no matter what is thrown at them basically, what those things are supposed to do is help the hero and heroine come to understand what they value in each other, and what they are willing to give up or to risk to be together.  So it isn’t enough, in a way, for the hero and heroine to necessarily acknowledge their feelings, they have to know how far they’re willing to go to be with that person. 

So the biggest stumbling block or obstacle in their path is themselves, they have to learn about themselves over the course of their actual physical adventures to get to the point where they can reconcile all that, and say “No matter what, I love you, I want to be with you and I’m willing to do whatever it takes.” 

So when the book closes and the sun sets, and the hero and heroine do their riding off together, we know that they’re going to be all right because they’ve already proven how much they need each other and want to be with each other.

BB:  So ‘happily ever after’ hasn’t changed that much in the past years that Barbara Cartland has been writing her several hundred titles. Is that what you’re telling me?

AS:  Well, not that much, I guess it's just the means by which they get to the ‘happily ever after’.

BB:  (laughs) But that’s probably what becomes the final definition; that there is a ‘happily ever after’ in a romance novel. That’s what readers are looking for in the final analysis.  They don’t want to have a bad ending.

AS:  I think that’s right. That’s the thing that differentiates romance from probably any other genre.  Although any kind of genre, whether it's mystery fiction, or science fiction, or fantasy or anything like that all have the sort of implicit promise at the end.  So the implicit promise of every romance novel, which is almost never deviated from, is the ‘happily ever after’ where the hero and heroine make some kind of emotional commitment to one another, whatever form it takes.  So that stays the same, just the means by which they get there and what we hope for them.

BB:  That’s all really interesting.  This book is available in stores in February, and you also have another title coming down the pipe with Dorchester, and that’s called Love in a Bottle, and when is that going to be available?

AS:  It is scheduled for December 2006.

BB:  Excellent.  Well Ami, thank you so much for speaking with us today. I really enjoyed this.  I learned so much about romance, and I enjoyed Lady X’s Cowboy and I look forward to watching your work, both under your pseudonym, Zoe Archer, and your other literary fiction.

AS: Thank you so much, Paula, it’s been a pleasure.

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