RIP “Queen of Steam.” A Tribute to Bertrice Small
Last week Tuesday saw the passing of one of the pioneers in the romance industry, Bertrice Small. Before Fifty Shades of Gray and the explosion of electronic and indie publishig, Bertrice was one of the original “Avon Ladies” who helped shift the genre toward including sensual, detailed descriptions of love scenes between hero and heroine. Bertrice’s books were unapologetically full of graphic sex, eyebrow-raising at the time and earning her the moniker, “The Queen of Steam.” Her romance Skye O’Malley, published way back in 1981, is still in print, and I’d encourage anyone who’s never read it to do so. There are twists and turns in the plot that were groundbreaking at the time. The heroine takes multiple lovers! Some of them die! It’s a delicious, sensual, feast of a romance and represents much of what we write today: strong-willed heroines who take no shit. In many ways, Small’s heroine Skye O’Malley was a lot like the author herself: feisty and prickly and sometimes demanding. But Bertrice was also incredibly generous with her time and never failed to lend advice whenever asked. She was a mentor to me, as well as my friend.
Back in 2002 when I wrote under the name Liz Madison I got my first contract, a two-book deal from Kensington. I was, as only writers can understand, absolutely over-the-moon elated. After all the time I’d spent writing and submitting and getting rejected, this was Christmas and heaven rolled into one. But for me the news only got better: one of the books I’d get published was a stand-alone historical romance, but the other was a novella that Kensington editor Kate Duffy asked me to write for inclusion in an anthology entitled Delighted along with Bertrice Small. Whhhaaaat??!! Bertrice Small?? I’d been reading her stuff for years and gobbled it up with the gusto of a starving person eating pepperoni pizza with extra cheese. Now I was going to be included in an anthology with Bertrice being published by Kensington! It felt akin to a struggling actress finally getting her big break and being cast in a movie alongside Meryl Streep. Talk about euphoria. And pressure! I had to make sure my story was good enough to get the Queen of Steam’s nod of approval.
I decided to write her a letter. As in paper. Snail mail. Hey, I didn’t have her email address and wanted to reach out, so actual mail was the way to go. I recall being nervous – what if she didn’t respond? As it turned out, those nerves were for naught. I’d included my own email address and right away when Bertrice received my letter she contacted me. From that moment on until her death last week, she and I remained in touch.
After my first publishing deal, a series of unfortunate events led to a twelve-year drought before I’d get another contract. I almost quit but Bertrice urged me on, telling me I was a good writer and that publishing just took persistence. A f**k ton of it, yes, but persistence nonetheless. One of the single best things she ever did for me was recommend, more than once, that I join RWA. If she hadn’t done that, and if I hadn’t taken her advice, who knows where my career would have gone. But with her encouragement I found my local chapter, made amazing friends who are also now my critique partners, and finally got another book deal.
It feels now as if I’ve come full circle: just last week I received a contract for an erotic historical novella I’d written several years ago. I’d hoped, at the time I wrote it, that it would get published in another anthology along with Bertrice. That’s not going to happen, but it doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that someone who didn’t need to spend time with a novice writer chose nevertheless to do so, and for that I’ll always be grateful.