Message From The Author
On the page, in person and even
at sea, Brenda Jackson keeps
her readers satisfied
By Diane Snyder
How does a career in customer service for an insurance company prepare you for life as a romance author?
As Brenda Jackson explains, both professions need consumers to keep buying their product -- and customers demand satisfaction.
"Some writers say, 'I'm gonna write what I wanna write.' No, you need to listen to your readers," says the former State Farm Insurance manager, who retired from the company in 2008 after 37 years and now devotes herself full time to writing, publishing and a myriad of other projects. "I promised my readers with my very first book that I would always try to deliver a product that would make them smile in the end."
That she has. Between reissues and new titles, Jackson, 56, is releasing 13 books from various publishers in 2009. This summer alone there's Taste of Passion (June, St. Martin's), the latest novel in her long-running and immensely popular Madaris Family series; Intimate Seduction (July, Kimani), a new book featuring the fourth Steele brother, Donovan; and the Silhouette Desire One Night With the Wealthy Rancher (August). Look for a new Kimani Romance, Bachelor Untamed, in October; a new title in her Westmoreland Family series, Westmoreland Way (Silhouette Desire) in November; and Tis the Season ... for Romance, a holiday anthology of four stories featuring characters from previous books, from Jackson's own venture, the appropriately named Madaris Publishing Company, in December.
Why did Jackson, who still makes the time to personally respond to her readers' e-mails, extend her career horizons from author to publisher? To keep her customers satisfied, of course. "You have all these secondary characters in a book, and some of them you don't ever intend to develop beyond that book, but readers don't care," she explains. "They want everybody to be with somebody. They want to know about Uncle Joe and the girl down the street. It's not enough of a story to take to Harlequin or whomever. Publishers have guidelines, and you have to have so many pages, but with Madaris I have an avenue."
Except for Jackson's own enterprise, all her other publishing routes for the next five years will lead directly to Harlequin. The leading romance publisher signed her to an exclusive contract under which she'll continue to produce all three of her popular family series -- featuring the salt-of-the-earth Madarises, the alpha Westmorelands and the powerful Steeles -- for its Silhouette Desire and African-American Kimani imprints. (Taste of Passion is Jackson's last Madaris title for St. Martin's.)
But that won't be all. Jackson also intends
to extend her series to young-adult titles via Harlequin's Kimani TRU imprint. "Again, that is driven by my readers," she says. "They want their kids introduced to the Madaris children or the Westmoreland children." (Jackson has yet to pick her YA pseudonym -- she considered combining her first and middle names, but that would make her Brenda Joyce, a name that's already taken on the romance-novel front.)
Beyond her literary pursuits, Jackson hopes to bring the Madaris brand to the screen. With help from her filmmaker son, Gerald Jackson Jr., who's directed book trailers of some of her titles, Jackson is planning a movie version of one of her stories, perhaps her holiday novella Truly Everlasting. "My agent is going to try to market it to some of the stations as a Christmas movie -- Hallmark, Lifetime -- but if that doesn't work, it's going to go straight to DVD," Jackson says. "I already have women that say they'll get the movie if I make it."
In the meantime she's gearing up to join 300 readers for her biennial Madaris/Westmoreland Family Cruise, this one to Canada. They'll sail from New York to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick aboard the Carnival Triumph, June 15-20. Special events include meet-and-greet parties, book signings and, back by popular demand, a bachelor auction for charity, featuring cover models and other fearless volunteers. Two years ago the auction raised $5,000 for a Florida Memorial University scholarship.
Of course Jackson doesn't have to wait until cruise time to interact with readers. She joined them on a research excursion for Taste of Passion, which features the romance of rodeo-star Luke Madaris and attorney Mackenzie Standfield, who helps the wrangler recuperate after an on-the-job injury. The author and a posse of readers moseyed over to a rodeo in Maryland -- and caught the attention of some cowboys. "We were announced: 'We have Brenda Jackson and the romance readers here, so ya'll show 'em how much you love 'em.'" Jackson recalls, laughing at the memory. "A couple of guys who really were into this jumped over the rail and came into the stands and hugged us. Part of the research, baby. That's what I told my husband."
Gregarious and personable, Jackson is not only well suited to reader interactions, she's also the perfect person to have moved from romance reader to author, with more than 50 titles since 1995. When she was just 14, she fell in love with her husband, Gerald, when he gave her a ride on the handlebars of his bicycle. "I knew. It wasn't like he was impressing me with a set of wheels," she laughs. But the apples didn't land very close to the tree for their two adult sons, who remain unattached at 31 and 28. "My kids think it's so corny. The thought of getting married at 19 and 21 just is not something they could consider."
Although Jackson admits they went through a period of empty-nest syndrome when their youngest son left home, spending many weekends
visiting him at college, they eventually channeled their energy into doing things for themselves, like traveling.
"I really, really do believe in romance," Jackson says. "It is possible that people can fall in love at first sight, and it is possible that people can have long marriages. You're going to have ups and downs down the way, but you can never lose sight of the reason you married."
Among the Jacksons' recent travels was a trip to Washington, D.C., for the inauguration of President Obama. Although Jackson initially backed Hillary Clinton, she ended up campaigning for the 44th president -- and even catching the attention of a couple of Secret Service agents when she shook his hand and snapped a picture at a fund-raiser in her hometown of Jacksonville, Fla. "I think I scared them," she explains, "because I flashed my camera so fast that they grabbed my wrist!"
The Jacksons wanted to witness the historic event firsthand. "I'm in that age group where I do remember segregation," she says. "I remember having to go to an all-colored bathroom. If you lived through it, then this was a very special moment. My husband and I had a wonderful time."
Although Jackson has already reaped the benefits of crossover readership, especially with her Westmoreland series, which is released through the general-readership Silhouette Desire line, she sees America's first family as possibly enhancing the image of black romances. "One of the first publishers I went to said, people don't perceive there being black romances," Jackson says. "I'm like, why? People of any race can be romantic. But because Barack and Michelle have such a beautiful, loving relationship, I'm hoping that people will see what we've been writing about come to life."
Jackson notes that when she does book signings, "I get just as many white ladies as I do black ladies," and credits that to the universality of her stories. "My books are not cultural lessons," she says. "I think readers are seeing them now as just books with African-American characters. Whatever happens in my books could happen no matter what the race of the person is."
Excerpt from Taste of Passion
The arena suddenly quieted and Mackenzie watched as the gate flew up and the steer was released. Seconds later Luke, riding expertly and skillfully, was right on its tail. In less than three heart-stopping seconds, Luke was off his horse with his rope in his hand. Dirt and dust flew everywhere but it was evident who was in control; before anyone could bat an eye, Luke had the steer on the ground and efficiently roped.
When he began walking away the people in the stands broke into cheers, whistles and applause. Luke hadn't made it back to the chute when the judges posted their scores. There was no doubt he was the winner. The crowd went wild and the announcer's voice beckoned Luke to come back onto the field to take a bow for his cheering fans.
Then suddenly everything got quiet and Mackenzie saw why. Behind Luke a chute gate flew open and out tore the most ferocious-looking bull Mackenzie had ever seen. A scream caught in her throat as she watched everyone go into action to stop the bull, which was headed right in Luke's direction. Clowns tried doing everything they could to distract the bull and some got more than they bargained for, when the animal's horned head sent a number of them flying.
From where Mackenzie sat it wasn't apparent whether Luke had managed to jump out of the way before the bull could charge him. All she saw was that a number of cowboys had finally gotten the bull under control and were returning him to the pen. But Luke was lying flat on the ground, unmoving. Paramedics were rushing out on the field with a stretcher.
While fear of the unknown gripped the suddenly hushed crowd, Mackenzie whispered his name out loud. "Luke." And then she sprang from her seat, threw her legs over the top rail, and was
running down from the stands and toward the fallen cowboy.
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