Sep 02
Left to right, Meet Me in Manhattan real-life couple, Erika Fredell and Ted Skala, and author Judith Arnold

Left to right, Meet Me in Manhattan real-life couple, Erika Fredell and Ted Skala, and author Judith Arnold

According to the Nielsen ratings, 15 million watched The Bachelor propose and 11.5 million people watched The Bachelorette get proposed to. According to the Romance Writers of America, over 70 million Americans read romance novels and 29 million Americans read romance novels regularly. So, pairing a real-life love story with a successful romance author seems like it should create a kind of romance entertainment that has huge audience popularity. The True Vows series of “reality-based romance” novels that is being launched this Fall was born out of this line of reasoning.
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One of the first books in this new sub-genre of reality-based romance novels was created when an editor spotted a story in the wedding section of the New York Times. She matched the true love story of that New York couple, Erika Fredell and Ted Skala, with the popular romance author Judith Arnold, and the result was “Meet Me In Manhattan,” a true love story written in the style of a classic romance novel.

“Meet Me In Manhattan,” is Judith Arnold’s 87th published romance novel. Arnold is not only well-acquainted with the romance genre, she is also a fictional writer with an inside view of the publishing industry. Here is what Judith Arnold (a/k/a Barbara Keiler) had to say about the birth of reality-based romance novels, the romance genre, and the relevance of reading books in a world of electronic entertainment.

QUESTION: What was your initial reaction when you were approached about writing a “reality-based” romance novel?

ANSWER: My first reaction was: Can I do this? Can I write a romance based on actual people? My second reaction was: Sure, I can do this! It sounded like a lot of fun, and I thought—wrongly, as it turned out—that writing a book based on the experiences of a real couple would be easy. It was a lot of fun, but quite a challenge, too.

QUESTION: What is the biggest difference between writing a romance novel based on a real story and writing one that is completely fictional?

ANSWER: When you’re writing a romance based on a real story, you’ve got to deal with those pesky little things called facts. With Meet Me In Manhattan, I did resort to fictional techniques, inventing characters and scenes and rearranging incidents and conversations to make the story work. Real life doesn’t always follow a dramatic arc. It doesn’t always have turning points, sparkling dialogue, all those fictional devices novelists use to make their story hold the reader’s interest. Fortunately, Ted and Erika, the couple at the center of my book, are smart, interesting, appealing people, and the story of how they wound up together is wonderfully emotional and satisfying. I fictionalized some elements, but I tried whenever possible to stick to the facts of their story.

I guess the biggest difference is that when you’re writing fiction, you invent whatever you need to make the story succeed. When you’re writing fiction based on reality, you invent whatever you need to make the story succeed, but you try to do it as little as possible.

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QUESTION: When, how and why did you first start writing romance novels?

ANSWER: I’ve been a writer all my life. In college my focus switched from fiction to drama, and I went on to get a master’s degree in creative writing with an emphasis on drama. My plays were produced at regional theaters around the nation. But during the ten years I worked as a playwright, I still wrote fiction.

Eventually I burned out on theater and decided to return to my first love: novel writing. I wrote several serious and depressing literary novels, but no one wanted to publish them. So I decided to research romance fiction to see if I could write that. I read four romance novels and loved them.

I loved that they were about women—strong women who struggled and strove and wound up having it all. I also loved that they were about people who figured out ways to overcome conflict. Romance novels were about peace, love, human connection—values that really matter to me. So I decided to try writing them. Less than a year after I started reading romance novels, I’d sold my first romance novel.

QUESTION: How did you come up with the pen name “Judith Arnold?”

ANSWER: Judith and Arnold are my parents’ names.

QUESTION: In the age of internet transparency, people are aware that Judith Arnold is a pen name. Why do you continue to write with it? Have you or do you think you’ll ever write a book using your real name?

ANSWER: I continue to write as Judith Arnold because, after so many years and so many books, that’s the name readers recognize and look for. Also, I like to continue honoring my parents by putting their names on my book covers. I write projects that aren’t romance novels under my own name. But romance readers know Judith Arnold.

QUESTION: These days people have less time to read books, and a seemingly shorter attention span. Do you think books in general and romance novels in particular are becoming obsolete?

ANSWER: People need stories. They hungered for stories before books existed, and they hunger for stories today. Narrative stories help us to make sense of the world. They educate, enlighten and entertain us. I can’t imagine stories ever becoming obsolete.

That’s not to say that the medium through which we receive those stories can’t or won’t change. Some people satisfy their yearning for stories by watching TV or movies. Others prefer their stories in words, as books, whether they read them or listen to audio versions.

I don’t think we’ll ever see a time when people don’t want romance stories. Stories about people overcoming challenges, resolving conflicts and achieving a happy, love-filled ending satisfy a deep desire within readers. I’ve donated my books to battered women’s shelters and heard that even those residents—women who have had the worst possible experiences in their marriages and romantic partnerships—still want to read about true love, about people opening their hearts and learning to trust and rely on one another.

Books are a medium, and I believe some people will always enjoy receiving their stories in that medium. Paper books may eventually become obsolete, replaced by e-readers, but I think many people prefer to receive their stories in word form rather than in a visual medium like film or video. It’s true that books have to compete with other entertainment media for people’s time, but I don’t think they’ll ever be obsolete.

QUESTION: If you didn’t write romance novels for a living, what would you like to do?

ANSWER: Be a rock star.

QUESTION: In your 27-year career, how has the fictional romance genre evolved?

ANSWER: Twenty-seven years ago, vampire romances didn’t exist! Seriously, tastes change. Subgenres come and go. Before True Vows, nobody had ever published Reality Based Romances ™.

When I first started selling, publishers were a bit more open-minded. The economy was booming, and publishers were willing to take chances on a wider variety of stories. Now, I think the publishers are a little more cautious. They want every book to be a sure thing; they aren’t as willing to let authors experiment. They are more risk averse, and the result is that there’s less variety in the books being published.

QUESTION: “Meet Me In Manhattan” is your 87th novel. After writing and publishing so many romance novels, is it difficult coming up with new and fresh ideas?

ANSWER: I’m not sure it’s difficult to come up with new and fresh ideas, but I think the subjects that interest me and the themes I want to explore through my writing have changed. I still love writing romances, but I’m also interested in writing about the challenges and opportunities women face at different stages of their lives. Whether or not I’m writing romances, though, I’m always writing about characters and their relationships. To me, connecting with other people is the essence of life. I never have any trouble coming up with new ideas for stories featuring characters who learn about who they are through their relationships with others.

QUESTION: Are your fictional characters influenced by people that you know or are they completely fabricated?

ANSWER: My husband is convinced that every romance hero I’ve ever written was modeled after him! My characters are fabricated, but everything I write arises from my life, my observations, my interactions with the world. I may not consciously model a character after someone I know, but I’m sure there’s a subconscious influence. I take bits and pieces from my encounters with people and those bits and pieces somehow wind up in my characters.

QUESTION: Which of the characters in your novels do you think is most like you?

ANSWER: All my heroines, of course! My heroines are smart, determined, willing to work hard and eager to do the right thing. They have senses of humor. They are definitely not perfect. They aren’t necessarily model-pretty. But they’re sensible and spirited and generous. I’d like to think I am, too.

QUESTION: Are you planning on writing any more reality-based romances in the future?

ANSWER: If HCI Books asks me to write more books for True Vows, I’d love to.

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