MY NOT-SO-SECRET IDENTITIES
by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Oh, wouldn’t it be fun if I could say I had secret identities because I’m a master spy? Of course, I couldn’t say any of that if I were a master spy, unlike the fictional master spy, Bond-James-Bond, who introduces himself everywhere.
The truth of it is…I have a lot of identities, secret and otherwise, because of the way publishing used to work.
Once upon a time, in a land far far away, where we had to walk uphill in the snow to get to the mailbox to mail the manuscript we wrote with a quill pen, publishers pretended that they knew how book sales operated. (Publishers didn’t know: they knew how many books shipped out of warehouses, not how many got returned, but that’s a story for another day—or one you can find on my weekly business blog on my website, kriswrites.com. You see, in a not-so-secret identity, I’m also a nonfiction writer who writes about publishing.)
Anyway, because publishers thought they knew about sales, they believed that readers were one thing only. Romance readers didn’t read science fiction. Science fiction readers didn’t read mystery. Mystery readers didn’t…well, you get the picture.
Of course, if you look at your own bookshelves (virtual or real), you know that’s not true for you. And it’s not true for any reader.
But back in those dark days, a writer had to choose what genre she would write in for the rest of her life. I failed at choosing. My brain can’t be tamed.
I started in science fiction. I had a lot of success in science fiction, so everyone expected me to be an sf writer forever and ever. The problem was that I also wrote mystery short stories and sold them (not as frequently because there were fewer markets), and I really, really, really wanted to write historical romance.
But history major me freaked myself out about history. I figured the details had to be perfect and I wasn’t up to that, so in those early days, I wrote fantasy and science fiction with occasional romantic elements. (See Traitors, The White Mists of Power, and parts of The Fey series.) I continued to write sf, and I snuck up on romance.
I wrote romantic suspense short stories. I wrote fantasy stories with romantic elements. One of them, “The Strangeness of the Day,” started like a traditional mystery, with a handsome man turning up in a lawyer’s office with a strange request. Turned out he was Prince Charming, who had been protecting Sleeping Beauty from the evil queen for centuries, and he needed help waking Sleeping Beauty up. Things got scary, things got dicey—and because my mind is truly strange—the Prince falls in love with the lawyer.
Oh, the conundrum. And not just a fictional one. Because, at that moment, a series of novels formed in my head—and this was the first, titled Utterly Charming.
I knew all of these books would be fairy tale romance filled with humor.
At the time, I had started a new series for Roc Books. The Retrieval Artist series also started from a short story (a novella, really). These books were set on the Moon in the far future, and had a dark noir feel. People didn’t just die in these books. People got eviscerated. (By aliens, okay? And off stage. But still.)
I don’t know about you readers, but I do know about me as a reader. And Reader Me can be a very sensitive soul. Reader Me gives Real Me nightmares if I read anything dark before bed. So bedtime reading is always romance for me.
I don’t care how dark the romance gets, that happy ending is guaranteed—and at that time of day, I need it.
I can read the news (for my nonfiction writing self), or history (for all of my selves), or noir mystery fiction (because I love it), or hard-edged science fiction (also love it), or violent fantasy worlds (yeah, love), but in the daylight please—hours before my subconscious takes over for its shift in my sleeping brain. I want to hang with couples falling in love in my sleep, not visit war zones.
So Reader Me has made Writer Me very sensitive to branding. Or maybe I became sensitive to branding the day in 1990 when I flung a Nora Roberts book across a Perkins Restaurant. I was reading romance on the way to see my dying father. Romance, to escape. Romance, not to think about dying.
And in the middle of the book, this baby we all had fallen in love with, gets murdered. Murdered! I burst into tears and launched that book into the stratosphere, narrowly missing an old lady across from me.
I felt betrayed.
I still read Nora, but cautiously. (And no, I won’t tell you which book it is, because…spoilers.)
I vowed I would never betray a romance reader. In my books, the babies live. So do puppies, kittens, and cute-as-a-button children. Even ugly children. And the endings are happy.
My novels in all of the other genres do not always end happily. And occasionally children die. (Especially in my Kris Nelscott mystery novels, which are [sigh] historically accurate.)
I did not want someone to pick up a Rusch book, hoping for a romantic escape from a horrible time in their life, only to discover that I too had piled on.
Enter Kristine Grayson.
Her books are always strange and wacky and weird. I have some plans for her, so her books won’t always be romance. But they’ll always have happy endings, and the babies will live, and Toto, you’ll know you’re not in Kansas anymore.
Kristine Grayson writes the ultimate escape fiction.
She’s me. But not all of me. She’s the wacky, goofy side. The one that enables the science fiction by saying “what-if…?” all the time. But she takes it too far. She always goes light years beyond the realm of the possible.
What if Prince Charming fell in love with the wrong woman? What if a rather disgruntled lawyer discovered magic? What if, as in the story in this issue, evil stepmothers aren’t really evil? What if they’re just misunderstood?
Writers ask me for advice all the time. And the question they ask the most is should they have a pen name.
For most things, I say no. Because readers aren’t one thing. Readers are savvy creatures, and they know the difference between a noir novel set in the 1960s and a science fiction novel set on the Moon. Readers might choose to read one, and not the other.
But I do tell writers that they might want to think about tone before they decide to forgo pen names entirely. If I started publishing in 2017, I probably would have created Kristine Grayson anyway.
Some of that would have been for me—giving me permission to write that wacky world. But some of that would have been for Reader Me—a subtle contract that this book will end happily. If you see a puppy in a Grayson book, you know no one will kick it.
We need books like that. Or at least, I need books like that.
And I need to write them sometimes too.
I still haven’t written my historical romance novel yet. I’m circling it, trying to figure out where I’ll find the courage.
And I don’t know what name will be on that book when I manage to finish it.
The name won’t be Grayson, because the book won’t be funny and wacky. The name might be Rusch, because occasionally, I do commit romance at the novel length that isn’t wacky and weird. One of the books I wrote that I’m most proud of is The Death of Davy Moss which is a romance despite the title. (And I promise, babies and puppies are Just Fine.)
I’m still sneaking up on romance. But, in the tradition of Bond-James-Bond, I’m now doing it in plain sight.
So maybe I am a fictional master spy after all. I just don’t get to travel the world on a jet ski. And I don’t believe that all people who own white long-haired cats are evil villains.
Which gives me the idea for a novel….
Copyright © 2017 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.
Heart's Kiss Magazine
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