As a young girl, I read all the usual suspects: Beverly Cleary, Judy Blume and Laura Ingalls Wilder. I was crazy about Nancy Drew and desperately wanted to be Harriet the Spy. But as I grew older, my reading tastes turned in a new direction. When I was in junior high, my family moved to Vancouver, Washington, a sprawling suburban town just outside Portland, Oregon. I’d always been a book lover, and when my mom ran errands, she dropped me off at a bookshop in a strip mall near our bank.
I can’t remember the name of the shop, but I can see the big sign in its window: Used Paperbacks. It was a kind of bookstore that seemed common back then in the mid-1970s, a dusty little spot that sold only used mass markets. Left on my own, I explored the shelves, and that’s how I discovered Harlequin Romances. While it was surely natural for a thirteen-year-old girl to be drawn to romance novels, my attraction to them had little to do with the onset of raging hormones. As I pulled each book off the shelf, I discovered a new part of the vast world I had long dreamed about.
Hong Kong. Greece. Tasmania. The Canary Islands. I felt a thrill as I read each name, for I had long been obsessed with the idea of travel, an obsession nurtured by Around the World in 1,000 Pictures, a decades-old book that had been passed along to me by a great aunt. I also happened to be a nostalgic kid who thought my parents’ 1950s upbringing was really cool, and so I honed in on the chaste romances written during that era.
My mom never questioned the stacks of romances I brought home, and left to my own devices, I sat for hours, transported, not just into relationships with tall dark strangers, but into the monuments of Cypress or the pagodas of Tokyo. I probably read a hundred Harlequins during my junior high years, and because of that I traveled to dozens of places.
As I entered college and studied English literature, and then graduated and started working in a legendary independent bookstore, my tastes broadened. I also discovered the stigma of reading romances, and so when people asked me what I’d read as a girl, I found myself skirting this part of my reading past. Then I had a meeting with an editor at Little, Brown to talk about a novel I’d written. She asked me about my influences, and I threw out the names of a few heavy hitters. But as I did this I felt as if I was cheating on an old loyal friend. So I confessed: romances.
The editor nodded and said she could tell, because romances teach a writer how to tell a story and keep that story moving from one page to the next. The more I thought about it, the more I realized she was right. The Harlequins I read had a specific structure, and they taught me how to build a strong framework for a story. I also believe these romances were a gateway to appreciation for writers such as Graham Greene and Michael Ondaatje and so many others who masterfully use setting as character.
Eventually, a lifetime of immersing myself in foreign settings on the page led me to write my debut historical novel The Map of Lost Memories, which takes place in Shanghai, Saigon and the Cambodian jungle. Set it 1925, it is the story of a young American woman, a dashing nightclub owner, a drug-addled revolutionary and an archaeologist on the hunt for a secret temple and a set of scrolls believed to contain the lost history of Cambodia’s ancient Khmer people. Now that this novel is published, the issue of setting comes up often in interviews because it plays such a crucial role in the book. This got me thinking more about my influences, and I recalled the one Harlequin I’ve kept all these years, Under the Stars of Paris, stored away in a box in my closet with my other favorite childhood books.
For fun, I hopped online and looked it up, and to my surprise I found hundreds of listings, reviews on GoodReads and numerous websites about the author, Mary Burchell. Mary Burchell, it turns out, was the pen name for Ida Cook, and Ida, along with her sister, rescued Jews from the Nazis in the 1930s. Using their love of opera as an excuse for travel, the English sisters moved in and out of Germany, saving lives, their bravery funded by the romances Ida wrote.
Among Mary Burchell’s many books was The Warrender Saga, a series that focused on the opera world and introduced romance readers to such famous operas as Eugene Onegin and Carmen. Discovering this, I began to remember more, and I realized that by reading romances, I had learned not just about places. I learned about espionage and art collecting and even the Hungarian uprising of 1956, for those books I read were very well researched.
For a while I was embarrassed by my romance reading phase. I’m glad I smartened up and no longer feel that way, because those Harlequins offered me a priceless gift. They gave me the entire world, they gave me the foundation for my own career as a novelist who wants to share new places and new experiences with readers, and that’s an education I wouldn’t trade for anything.
One lucky reader who comments on my blog will be randomly selected to win a copy of The Map of Lost Memories. Good luck!