Who says romance novels can't be smart? Chicago native Julie Tetel Andresen is a romance novelist with a doctorate who blends her love of language and her fascination with the language of love. Whether writing within the academic discipline of linguistics or within the fanciful realm of romantic fiction, Anderson communicates with aplomb. She spoke with Our Town about everything from Noam Chomsky’s influence over the linguistic discipline to her BDSM novella.
Our Town Linguist and romance-writer seems an unlikely combo.
Julie Tetel Andresen In the popular imagination, a fundamental incompatibility seems to exist between people who read and write emotional, neck-down romances and those who engage in cerebral, neck-up academics. Since I do both, I believe I can explain the riddle of how it is possible for the two activities to coincide and cohere in the writing life of one person.
OT What’s the biggest misconception about romance novels?
JTA Many people think that romance novels are written by no-talent hacks for people with poor taste. To this misperception I have two things to say: i) sure, some romance are stupid, just as there are some stupid murder mysteries, thrillers, magazine articles, TV shows, movies, etc.; and ii) I emphatically do not think the idea that writing or reading about love – which (last time I checked) “makes the world go round” – is a stupid activity in and of itself. The stories are emotional, yes. Readers read them for the pleasure of participating in the formation of an intense emotional and physical bond between two people. However, I reject the notion that the farther you are down an emotional pathway, the farther away you are from anything to do with the intellect. In fact the best romances are not only emotionally satisfying, they also have to be psychologically satisfying, and the psychological profile of the relationship is created through dialogue between the hero and heroine and in the description of their interior reactions to one another.
OT How does your work in linguistics and your romance writing relate?
JTA The challenge of creating these complex and fascinating stories is why I write romance novels, and it so happens that their fundamental characteristics coincide with my linguistic interests. These latter turn consistently around how language came to arise evolutionarily in the species through dialogic interactions and how the increasing complexity of this linguistic ability over time reshaped parts of the human body. Human respiration, for instance, is different from other primates’ respiration, since humans have cortical control over the diaphragm, which regulates air pressure in the lungs, allowing us to speak. Furthermore, humans, unlike other primates, have great mobility in the lower part of the face, which is adapted to the purposes of articulation. Then there is the fact that the lips and tongue have the most densely concentrated nerve endings of any part of the body, which are not only important for the pressures of speaking but also perfect for the pleasures of kissing!
My latest book, Linguistics and Evolution. A Developmental Approach, opens with the line: “What is needed for a twenty-first-century linguistics is an approach to language that is inspired not by Descartes but by Darwin.” For the past fifty years, it is fair to say that large parts of linguistic theory and practice in the United States and elsewhere in the world, along with certain branches of the cognitive sciences, have been influenced by the Cartesian-inspired linguistics promoted by Noam Chomsky. Its methodology of analyzing sentences in isolation is complemented by the equally context-independent goal of discovering the abstract, universal principles that are said to underlie an individual’s knowledge of language. This knowledge or competence is theorized to be an inborn complex cognitive system that secures the ability to understand and produce an infinite number of novel sentences. How this knowledge comes to be inborn is an evolutionary question that has been only relatively recently addressed. How this knowledge develops is not addressed at all, because a universal, inborn ability is not open to individual development. Although many linguists have parted ways with Chomskyan linguistics and diverse approaches to our subject matter are flourishing, a comprehensive and integrated articulation of a temporally-aware understanding of language as a product of evolution, of cultural history, and of individual development has yet to emerge. I took it as my job in Linguistics and Evolution to provide such an integration.
Given what I’ve said about the importance of dialogue in a romance novel, it makes sense that I would find theoretically, psychologically, and emotionally unsatisfying the Chomskyan methodology of analyzing sentences in isolation – sentences that are not a response to a situation and which, in turn, provoke no rejoinder. I want a whole body linguistics, which involves people with their feet on the ground, moving around, gesticulating (as people always do when they speak, even when they are on the phone and even if they are blind), talking, interacting, and generally affecting one another. I also want psychologically astute romances – and there are many excellent romance writers today writing them. Bottom line: no mind-body dualism for me.
OT What drew you to linguistics?
JTA When I was growing up I shared a room with my sister. I remember being about five years old and lying in bed at night, telling my sister all the new words I had invented that day. Somewhere along the way, I discovered that there were whole other languages where the words were already made up, and I thought that was marvelous. I majored in French in college, and it wasn’t until I went on to graduate school in French that I discovered there was an entire discipline known as Linguistics. The first course I took, I was hooked.
OT Do you remember the first romance you read?
JTA Clear as a bell. I was in seventh or eighth grade [and] a friend lent me the book The Queen’s Grace by Jan Wescott. This was the story of Katherine Parr, the last wife of Henry VIII, the one who outlived him. It was fantastic, all the courtly intrigue, the clothing and customs. I read more historical romances until I got into high school, where I realized that smart people did not read such stuff. I turned to “better” works and went on extended “high lit” kick in high school and college until I thought if I ever read another one I would fling myself off a cliff. Then, a fellow graduate student lent me Georgette Heyer’s Cotillion. It was instant recognition. This was the kind of book I liked to read! I gobbled her up. Reading her work also gave me permission to write down the romantic stories I had in my head. The thing was, I had always had romantic stories in my head, and I would tell them to myself as I was going to sleep at night. I thought everyone did that, so I didn’t think there was anything else I supposed to do with those stories. However, when I encountered Heyer’s work, I realized there was actually a genre out there for me, one that fit with my imagination. [This] gave me permission to write down my own stories.
OT You wrote that you yielded to trend and just wrote a BDSM-inspired novella. Was there post-Shades of Grey pressure from your publisher?
JTA No, no pressure from anywhere but inside my head. After I went on a fairly recent BDSM-novel reading binge, I got a story idea. When I get a story idea in my head, it clogs my brain until I write it down. So my inspiration to write the story was to get rid of it. It’s like a relief. As I’ve just said, it took me a long time to figure out that the only way to stop the stories looping through my brain was to tell them “out loud,” to put them into words (Thank you, Georgette Heyer!), which then makes space for the next story to come into my head. So I had this very clear idea of the story I wanted to contribute to the BDSM genre, so finally I decided to write it down just to release it, figuring I would then throw it in the wastebasket. When I started out, I imagined it would be twenty pages, tops. But it turned out to be sixty pages (even my short stories are apparently on the long side). I must say that I had a ball writing it and ended up loving it! It’s an erotic gothic mystery that unfolds in one long scene, half from the hero’s POV, the other from the heroine’s.
OT What advice would you have for someone who wants to write romances?
JTA The following advice is for all beginning writers. Find a writer whose work you admire and study how that writer structures scenes and plots, makes transitions, [and] handles dialogue and characterization. Honor your creativity. It is not silly or shameful to want to be a writer. This means being true to yourself. When you have honored your creativity and been true to yourself as a writer, you have probably produced something I would want to read.
To learn more, visit Julie Tetel Andresen's website.