I’m a guy and I write love stories. As it turns out, not all that many other guys do this. Some romance writers with female names are actually men (I’m sure Jerry Springer has found a tawdry way to spin this at some point). Some men include great love stories in novels about other things (thank you, Pat Conroy). But remarkably few men make the love story the central element in their fiction. This seems terribly wrong to me, as though guys have made some universal agreement to maintain a laughable stereotype. Boys think about cars, sports, and sex (not necessarily in that order) and girls think about romance. Really?
When I discovered, well after I’d completed my first novel, When You Went Away, that I was something of an anomaly in the fiction world, I decided to think about what sent me on this mostly uncharted course. It didn’t take me long to realize that I had imprinted romantic love very strongly at an early age. Twice, actually.
The first came from my parents. My parents had an intensely romantic marriage. Not Technicolor epic romance. And not embarrass-you-in-front-of-your-friends romance. But very real and very deep romance that made it abundantly clear that they lived for one another, that they always thought of one another first, and that they were soul mates long before anyone started using that term. My father was the only man my mother ever dated. My mother was the only woman my father ever loved (he actually dated a little before they got together; in fact family legend has it that his first crush was on my mother’s older sister). When my father died, they’d been married for sixty-three years (in case you’re wondering, they had me relatively late in life after four other children). Their relationship was very gratifying to watch, even when I was a little kid. And it clearly had a huge impact on me.
As did my sister’s marriage. Thirteen years older than me, she met her husband when I was nine and they married the next year. This was the first time I got to see head-over-heels in action. My sister went from moderately intense to giddy in an eye blink – and then managed to stay that way. I spent a great deal of time in their home in my formative years, including an entire summer when she was pregnant with her first child, and they were almost supernaturally romantic. When my sister opened her first e-mail account – decades into her marriage – she chose her wedding date for her address. I think that really says it all.
None of this was on my mind as I developed the story for When You Went Away. I wanted to write a novel about (among other things) a guy who adores his wife, loses her way too soon, and faces a suite of emotions when he finds himself meeting love again. But as I think about it now, I realize that I probably wouldn’t have cared this much about love if I didn’t have these two huge imprints when I was a kid. Since very few other guys choose to write what I write, I guess my experience was far more unusual than I ever realized.