Love’s Labors

Photo: Courtesy of Stevenson Lupke Photography/HarperCollins

Mary Bly is a Shakespearean scholar at Fordham University, with degrees from Harvard, Oxford, and Yale. Unbeknownst to nearly everyone except her family—which famously includes her father, the poet Robert Bly, and her mother, the short-story writer Carol Bly—for the past five years she’s been living a parallel life as the best-selling historical-romance author Eloisa James, whose eight novels include titles such as Fool for Love, Your Wicked Ways, and the just-published Much Ado About You. Emma Garman spoke to Bly shortly after the announcement of her true identity.

Your husband is a professor of Italian at Rutgers and an Italian knight, no less. How does he feel about your coming out of the romance-novel closet?
I called him up this morning, before I went on CNN, and he said, “Wear your glasses and be sure you talk about Shakespeare!” He wanted me not to embarrass him in front of his colleagues.

Isn’t that the sort of stigma you’re trying to retire by owning up to your Eloisa James pseudonym?
The main reason I kept [my romance-writing career] separate in the beginning had to do with the sense of shame that American culture deals out to romance, to readers of romance.

Is part of that shame the dismissive designation of romance fiction as a women’s genre?
I think it has more to do with that puritanical thing that’s part of the American ethic. “Bodice-ripper” is a term still used frequently by the New York Times, for example, although it’s hopelessly out of date. But it inculcates a distaste toward women’s sexuality that lies at the root of the disapprobation of romance.

Were there any times when your secret identity and your academic one collided?
One year, I ended up in New Orleans, for the Shakespeare Association of America conference, and someone said, “You know all the restaurants!” Well, of course I did, because I’d been there with the Romance Writers of America. But for the most part, no. I took an enormous amount of pleasure in my double life. It’s fun having two lives, it’s fun having two names.

Was it easier to come out once you had the commercial imprimatur of being on the New York Times best-seller list?
Like so much in life, once you actually make it onto the list, it’s a huge anticlimax. But what it did say to me is that my readers don’t care what I write—they run to the bookstores to get the books. And if I don’t say who I am, then I’m shaming them as well. I’m saying I’m not part of that world.

How have your academic peers greeted the news?
I did tell one old friend from Harvard, and his reaction was telling: He said, “You … mean … you … write … like, the, sex? You write that part?” I think there’s a great misunderstanding with romance novels. No one’s ever read them. None of my friends have.

How do your famous-writer parents view your lucrative romance sideline?
My dad is a huge supporter of my work. He reads the novels aloud! And he loves hearing about the sales—he’s like [in an incredulous tone], “What’s the print run?” And keeping the secret was very hard for him because he’s got a terrible memory. So he’ll go to all these schools, and I’ll get these e-mails: “Hi, I’ve been driving your father around and he told me all about your double life.” And I have to write back and say, “Nobody knows! And I’m coming to your school next week to give a paper. Please don’t tell anyone.” But my mother’s not happy, and never has been—with the whole idea, and the sex stuff. It’s, you know, “If you can write, why don’t you at least try to write great literature?”

Whereas you’ve pointed out that much “great literature” bears many affinities with what nowadays gets called “genre fiction.”
Right. Shakespeare was a genre writer, down the line, never wrote outside his genre. He was not an innovator. Because it’s really quite a recent idea, that the best books have no genre. You know, if they’re literary fiction, then they have to be genre-free. It’s a very, very new idea. And most of the books we study as academics are firmly within one genre or another. Not to compare myself to Shakespeare. But I think you’d have to be a fool as a writer not to apprentice yourself to the very best in your field.

Love’s Labors