Her T-shirts are emblazoned with slogans like “Ask me about my feminist agenda” or “Virgin widow.” Her hair may be purple or blonde or ombre. She spends her days writing novels and tweeting politics in a Brooklyn coffeeshop/tavern. In person, she’s funny, candid and, perhaps unexpectedly, a fierce defender of the legitimacy of romance novels.
Sarah MacLean, the pen name of Sarah Trabucchi ’00, writes best-selling historical romances set in 19th-century London. If you’re picturing women in harm’s way relying on hunky aristocrats to save their skin, well, you’ve got the right lineup but the wrong outcome. “I’ve never written a damsel,” Trabucchi says. “My stand is she should be able to rescue herself, always. If she’s going to be tied up on a railroad track, she had better have a knife in her boot.”
In fact, as MacLean’s loyal readers know, the dashing duke may be arrogant and entitled at the beginning, but by the end, he’ll be brought low by love, begging to be back in the lady’s graces.
In real life, Trabucchi lives in Brooklyn with her musician husband, Eric Mortensen, and 5-year-old daughter, Victoria. In October, she came to campus by train—the better for meeting a writing deadline for her 14th romance novel—to attend a meeting of the Friends of the Libraries board, of which she is a member. To date, her books have sold some 1.5 million copies and been translated into 23 languages (Portuguese tops the list). Here she talks about what makes a good hero, why romance novels are subversive and why romance readers have livelier sex lives.
Your book covers have only women on them. Is that your doing?
The MacLean brand is a woman on the cover, usually looking to camera. My heroines are very strong and could survive quite happily in a world without men, and so the covers reflect that. I also have been a romance reader for something like 30 years, and so for me, the covers honor what romance readers want.
Your titles—A Rogue by Any Other Name, A Scot in the Dark—are funny and cheeky. Do you write them?
After writing a YA novel, The Season, I wanted to try an adult romance with the naughty stuff in it. The heroine of that book makes a list of nine things she would do if only she were a man with the freedom that men have. So I suggested Nine Rules to Break When Romancing a Rake. My agent put it in the subject line and six publishing houses immediately contacted her for it. Then the next series was all sorts of twists on puns. Now, it’s sort of a thing that I do. On my cellphone, I have a list of crazy romance novel titles.
How would you define the contemporary historical romance novel?
It began in 1972 with the publication of The Flame and the Flower, which was essentially an adventure story with a woman at the center. That birthed a genre. When we talk about the modern romance novel, we’re talking about sex on the page. In things like Valley of the Dolls, when women were on the page having sex, they were shamed for it. When romance novels appeared in the ’70s they were incredibly sex-positive. Women were having orgasms. And they were having parity in the relationship. Nobody had ever written books that centered the female gaze in such a way.
Feminism and romance novels are not mutually exclusive, then?
In my opinion, the arc of the historical romance novel is the arc of the women’s movement. If you think of the heroine as an archetype for women in general and the hero as an archetype for society writ large, he can’t survive without her, but she can survive just fine without him. Happiness for him requires him to be sort of broken down and remade in an image of equality. It’s incredibly subversive if you think about it. I wouldn’t write them if I didn’t feel all this.
You were a reader?
I was a big, big reader. My sister started reading romance novels when she was in high school, and she would store them under the bed. We shared a room. So by the time I was 9 or 10, she was putting them in on one side, and I was pulling them out the other side.
Are romance novels as popular as ever?
It’s 37 or 38 percent of the paperback fiction market. Women who read romance novels are keeping the lights on in publishing, and publishing knows that.
What makes a good hero?
I love a difficult hero. I love a cold hero, an impenetrable hero. There’s a moment in every great romance novel where the hero is left so broken that he has two choices: One is to just sort of exist as a shell of a person and the other is to apologize, to grovel and to rebuild himself as a man worthy of love. By the end of a book, romance heroes have deep, abiding respect for their heroines.
What stereotypes about the romance genre set you on edge?
My problem is the disdain for the reader. Romance readers are incredibly voracious. They are deeply connected to the world around them. They have an immense capacity for caring and for hope and for love. A study from the ’90s found that women who read romance novels are having much more fulfilling sex lives, which doesn’t surprise me. This idea that the readership is uneducated or unsophisticated is unacceptable.
Do romance novels create unrealistic expectations?
It should not be unacceptable for women to expect to have a partner who thinks that she’s intelligent and attractive and that she is valued, and a partner who wants her to have pleasure in life and in bed. Absolutely no one ever says, “Well, all those Jason Bourne books are giving men false high expectations.” I mean, that’s bananas. But god forbid women should expect to have parity in a relationship, right? Ugh, misogyny.
Beyond the writing, what does it take to make a successful brand?
You have to be a public person. I write a romance column in The Washington Post, for instance, and I’m on social media. You have to be accessible. Women so rarely feel heard that I think it’s my work to listen to their stories. Sometimes those stories are hard to hear. Sometimes it is, “You wrote a character who was in an abusive relationship and it changed my life.” Or, “My husband was deployed to Afghanistan and died; your books are what kept me going.”
Do you ever sneak Smith College into your novels?
I wrote a whole book about Smith. 10 Ways to Be Adored When Landing a Lord. The heroine runs a home for women who have run from bad places. There’s a community of women living in a house together. It’s basically Lamont House. Plus, all of my heroes who are aristocrats have names of houses at Smith: Duke of Haven, the Duke of Lamont, the Talbot sisters. There are echoes of Smith everywhere.
Did you plan to be a novelist?
Who thinks that they’re actually going to be a writer? That was like Plan D. After Smith I went to New York to work in publishing. I did PR for a while and then I went to graduate school and got a master’s in education from Harvard and went to work for an education nonprofit, then an education company and then an education think tank.
You quit education policy to write?
My first book was published in 2009, when I was just about to turn 30. That was a one-book contract. Then I wrote Nine Rules, and Harper Collins said, “We want this book, but we want three.” I couldn’t run a policy shop and also write romance novels. It just was unsustainable for marriage, dog, life. I loved my job and I still miss it, but when you get the opportunity to be a successful writer, it feels like that’s the job you choose.
Major: American studies
Favorite Professor: “Bill Oram’s Shakespeare classes were glorious; Don Robinson was the adviser to the Smithsonian program when I was there, and he was a fabulous, encouraging support of my scholarship in D.C.; it’s impossible not to think about the lessons of Modern European History with Ernest Benz these days; and of course, Dan Horowitz, who encouraged my first academic exploration of romance novels!”
SAQ, Winter 2018–19
Elise Gibson is editor of the SAQ.