Bodice-rippers with a twist

— Monica King says her books should be read while nibbling on a Snickers and sipping hot chocolate. Her romance novels are comfort reads.

"They don't want an Oprah book," she said of her readers. "They want escapism."


Richard Gwin/Journal-World Photo

Monica King, Topeka, talks about the romance novels she's written under the pen name Monica Jackson. The novels feature black characters.

King, who writes under the pen name of Monica Jackson and works part-time as a registered nurse in the child and adolescent inpatient unit at Menninger, has written six romance novels, all published by Black Entertainment Television Books.

King, who recently moved to Topeka, has become the lead author for the Arabesque Books line of romance novels. Her first novel, "Midnight Blue," became a made-for-TV movie and aired in March on the BET channel. Her fifth book, "The Look for Love," recently was tapped by BET for another movie.

While most romance novels are about women with shapely figures and peaches-and-cream complexions, more money than they can spend and sexual partners who satisfy their every need, King's characters are African American, and she's not afraid to let their flaws come to the forefront.

For example, her latest novel, "Never Too Late," revolves around a 47-year-old African-American woman who is a recovering alcoholic and has ended an abusive marriage to a U.S. congressman (the marriage's demise is chronicled in King's second book, "Heart's Desire"). "The Look of Love" is about an overweight woman who has self-esteem and relationship problems.

"My heroines are different," King said.

Action and characters

While King has been writing most of her life, she didn't take it seriously until 1994, when she took a writing workshop in the San Francisco Bay area. She began with short stories, and when she had surgery that fall and had to be off work, she began writing what would become "Midnight Blue."

"It was very plot-driven and fast," she said. "It was not character-driven. " The people were in the sack more than rabbits."

"Midnight Blue" was published in October 1997, and King was on a roll. "Heart's Desire" was released in July 1998; "Love's Celebration" in December 1998; "A Magical Moment" in June 1999; "The Look of Love" in January and "Never Too Late for Love" in June.

King said each novel takes about three months to write.

"Deadlines help," she said, responding to a question about what keeps her inspired. "I need to write every day and a certain number of pages or chapters a day when I'm on deadline. I try to write 2,500 to 3,000 words a day."

Arabesque limits the length of her novels.

"They want 75,000 to 110,000 words. My manuscripts are about 90,000 words, or 360 to 375 pages."

Looking for respect

King said romance writers typically don't get as much respect as writers in other literary genres -- a hard pill to swallow considering sales.

"Romance outsells all other genres put together," she said. "In the romance genre, you have a relationship and a commitment, whereas, for instance in the mystery genre, you have a dead body and a solution. Contrary to some beliefs, romance doesn't automatically mean formulaic writing with little characterization, depth or message."

What it boils down to is labeling and misconceptions about romance novels. King's "A Magical Moment" is a murder mystery. Her "Love's Celebration" is a spy thriller with recipes and a bibliography in the back -- not your typical romance fare.

While it may disappoint her romance fans, King, a single mother of a 3 1/2-year-old daughter, is looking to branch out into other literary areas. She is enrolled at Washburn University this fall and is working toward a master's degree so she can teach writing at the university level.

She will have an essay included in "Souls of My Sisters," a collection of essays about African-American women's relationship to body image and food, to be released in October. Also released that month will be "Midnight Clear," an anthology that was included in her first fantasy novella, "The Choice."

Her next Arabesque novel, "Too Hot to Handle," will hit the shelves in September 2001. But it may be her last romance.

"(Romance writing) was a great training ground," she said, "but I don't see myself getting the money or the respect."



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