What follows is an article written by Jennifer Wilde (aka Tom E. Huff) for his column "The Male Page" on the writing (and personal) life of romance legend Shirlee Busbee, as it appeared in the Spring #9, 1983 issue of Romantic Times magazine.
Writers are, according to general belief, tempestuous, temperamental creatures full of odd quirks and charming eccentricities that set them apart from the common herd. Embued with a certain mystique and an aura of glamour by much of the reading public, they are undeniably a bit different — nice folks to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live with one.
THE BUSBEES AT HOME
What is it actually like to live with one of these exotic beings? Tough, I assure you. My friend Howard Busbee is an expert on the subject, and I might add that he looks considerably older and drinks far more than he did before his vivacious and engaging wife, Shirlee, gave up a stable, responsible job to become a full time writer of torrid historical romances.
A sturdy six foot four, with slate blue eyes and tawny gold beard, Mr. Busbee resembles an amiable Viking. He is, basically, a good-natured chap with an infectious grin and a raucous sense of humor. He grins less of late, and that delightful humor is often eclipsed by moods that could be called surly.
“He’s become a terrible grouch,” his wife complains. “I simply can’t understand it.”
Having spent considerable time with Ms. Busbee — I can.
Let me hastily add that I love the lady dearly and consider her the most huggable person I know. She’s droll and delightful, a magnificently gifted writer and a wonderful human being filled to overflowing with the milk of human kindness. She’s also — when writing, as she usually is — thoroughly exasperating, and I think Howard should have a shiny gold medal for putting up with her. Howard once lost his voice for a week after one of her more winsome bouts of artistic temperament.
Team spirit, spirited team
When her first novel, Gypsy Lady, hit the national best seller lists and she had a contract for the second, Ms. Busbee gave up her job in order to work twice as hard at her writing. After the second novel, Lady Vixen, proved even more successful than the first, the Busbees held a conference and determined that it would be more feasible for Howard to give up his job as well and manage her career. He did so, and ever since the Busbees have worked as a team — Shirlee writing best sellers and Howard doing everything else.
Writers, alas, can’t be bothered by petty, mundane worries — not if they are to create best sellers. When the washing machine goes out, when the electric typewriter goes on the blink, when taxes and insurance payments are due, bills come in and contracts are to be negotiated, they need someone level-headed to handle things for them. Efficient, capable, as level-headed as they come, Mr. Busbee does all this — and much more. While his wife sits at the typewriter staring at the paper or pours over hefty research volumes, he copes.
He also builds furniture, renovates antique wagons, chops down trees, puts in fences and levels roads on the piece of property they own in the wilds of Northern California. (They spend a lot of time there, Howard working while Shirlee writes in the trailer. I’ve been there myself. The place is aswarm with rattlesnakes, several bears have been spotted and they’ve had a great deal of trouble with the Indians — I’m not kidding. But that’s another story). His first major project after retiring from the upholstery business was to add a new room onto their house in Fairfield, California — a sumptuous study with plush panelling, moveable skylights and gigantic black iron stove. He did all the work himself, down to the last electrical plug, amidst wails of “Honey, do this … Honey do that … Honey, get the phone … Howard! There’s a spider in here! … Sweetie, would you take the dogs out and bring me a sandwich?”
Patience, panic and pizza
Mr. Busbee has the patience of Job, but even Job would have been sorely tested by the charming but demanding Ms. Busbee. Shirlee, as readers know, gives her all to her books. Unlike others who whip off six or seven slight, simple books a year, she produces long, extremely complex epics with fully realized characters, each novel painstakingly researched and based on a solid foundation of historical fact. The results are marvelously satisfying to her millions of fans, but the anguish involved in their creation doesn’t make her any easier to live with.
Immersed in the nineteenth century, concerned with bringing out just the right nuances of character, she can be a trifle testy when Hubby innocently enquires if she intends to cook dinner. Howard makes many a trip to MacDonalds and The Pizza Hut, and, considering Shirlee’s cooking, that’s probably a blessing. She keeps claiming that she can cook, but I’ve yet to see any tangible evidence of it.
In addition to managing her career, keeping the household running and pampering her outrageously, Mr. Busbee is very much involved in the production of the books themselves. When Shirlee is stuck — as every good writer is, constantly, it seems — she and Howard will “talk things out” and his intelligent and perceptive suggestions often help her get over her block. He reads each chapter as it is completed, and Ms. Busbee places great value on his judgement.
“If Howard likes it, I know I’m on the right track. If he doesn’t, it’s back to the typewriter.”
An expert typist, Howard has his own desk, his own machine, and he types up each chapter in final form after the rough draft has been corrected and edited, leaving Shirlee free to get on with the creative end. It’s a job he enjoys immensely, and his flawlessly typed, beautifully spaced copy warms the heart of Avon editor Page Cuddy. Shirlee’s own typing leaves much to be desired, and changing a ribbon throws her into a panic.
Howard the Helpful
A gun buff and something of an authority on American Indians and the western frontier, Howard has been able to be of even more help with the new novel, While Passion Sleeps, due out in April. Set in Texas during the tumultuous days of the Council House Massacre, the novel is filled with blazing action and rugged romance. Beth, her genteel heroine, is transported to the west from a far more elegant background, and the hardships and horrors she endures are vividly described — as is her tempestuous affair with the virile Rafael, who, raised by Indians, finds the demure Beth almost more than he can handle. Howard’s knowledge of the era was of great benefit, and for months they were avidly immersed in conversations about early Texas politics, Commanche warfare and frontier justice, pouring over dozens of scarce old volumes together.
Mr. Busbee was often exasperated during those long months when While Passion Sleeps was being written, was often, he admits, driven up the wall by his wife’s moods and her inattentiveness to things like dusting, sweeping and cooking, but readers are going to be glad he endured. While Passion Sleeps is a magnificent read, the lady who wrote it is thoroughly enchanting. Living with her may be a mite trying at times, but it’s never dull.
Mr. Busbee has decided to keep her.
For the full article on Shirlee Busbee, her career and what she's doing today, pick up the May 2014 issue of RT Book Reviews! For the latest genre news and coverage visit our Everything Romance page.