The Dream Girl

Lone Star Country Club isn’t scheduled to start appearing in bookstores until June 2002, but already, nine of Harlequin’s top editors are gathered in a conference room in midtown Manhattan, staring at a description of the project’s test-marketed premise, trying to sketch in a few sudsy plotlines.

When a Sunday-morning foursome finds a baby sleeping in his bassinet on the ninth green, pandemonium breaks loose at the posh country club. Surely one of the foursome of eligible bachelors must be the father of the baby, but which one? Millionaire rancher Flynt Carson? Nerves-of-steel heart surgeon Tyler Moore? High-profile attorney Spence Harrison? Or brilliant architect Michael O’Day?

Ordinarily, the editors at Harlequin don’t cook up the plots to their romance novels. But Lone Star is different. It’s a sixteen-book suite, a grand total of 4,096 pages, and that requires a lot of planning. Margaret Marbury, a mellow, earthy woman who specializes in editing these mini-series, sits at the head of the charcoal-colored conference table, a spiral notebook in hand.

“Should these guys have met in college?” Marbury asks, scanning the faces of her colleagues. “Or at prep school? Or just through the club?”

“If they’re self-made men,” points out Leslie Wainger, an executive senior editor, “it couldn’t have been prep school.”

The editors, all women, don’t seem like creatures of the New York publishing Establishment, nor do they seem like the custodians of America’s top-selling female fantasies. Almost none wear makeup. Only a couple are fashion-conscious. One looks exactly like a nun (round face, ruddy cheeks, jumper), and three, for reasons a bit more difficult to isolate (the wire spectacles? the curls? the gossamer voices?) remind me of Mia Farrow.

“She comes from a cultivated family. None of us read romances. We’re all cold-blooded Wasps with no sentimentality whatsoever.”

Marbury has an inspiration. “There could be one guy who’s not usually a part of the group,” she suggests. “He could be a last-minute stand-in because they didn’t have a foursome. That happens all the time.”

The editors like it.

“So who should have been there?” continues Marbury. “And why did he cancel at the last minute?”

“Maybe he’s out of the country,” suggests Melissa Jeglinski, another editor.

“Yeah,” says Marbury, nodding, writing. “They can’t find him. He’s gone missing, perhaps?” There’s a brief silence. “Amnesia!” someone shouts, and everyone laughs.

I turn to the woman sitting next to me. She is wide-eyed, pixieish, striking; her nails are unmanicured and she has pushed the shoes off her feet. Her name is Isabel Swift. Until now, she has said relatively little – just watched with respectful pleasure. She smiles and shrugs. “Amnesia sells.”

Swift would know. For the past two years, she has been the head of the editorial department at Harlequin Enterprises, the Toronto-based publishing concern that includes, under its roomy umbrella, not only all eight species of Harlequin novels (Romance, American Romance, Superromance, Temptation, Duets, Intrigue, Historicals, Presents) but also Silhouette Books (acquired from Simon & Schuster sixteen years ago), Steeple Hill (Christian romances), Mira (fatter, name-brand romances), and Gold Eagle (an action-and-adventure series – i.e., romances for men). One out of every six mass-market paperbacks sold in North America is a Harlequin or Silhouette. Every second, five more are sold.

Swift is in charge of acquiring and developing the 700-plus titles her company pumps out annually. She also still finds time to personally edit Nora Roberts, the endlessly fecund ruler of the romance roost, who at one point last year posted four books simultaneously on the New York Times Best Sellers lists.

Isabel Swift may have the name of a heroine from a romance novel. But just about everything else about her – her pedigree, her plastic-dinosaur collection, her loft on Greene Street – suggests someone who would be more at home editing travel guides or science textbooks, not bodice-rippers. “Her thing for romances has been a puzzle to us all,” says Holly Davidson, a professor at Brandeis University and Swift’s cousin. “She comes from a cultivated family. None of us read romances. We’re all cold-blooded Wasps, rational people, with no sentimentality whatsoever. Isabel herself isn’t very sentimental – she’s always liked the absurd.”

Swift grew up in Georgetown; prepped at Madeira, the tony all-girls boarding school; and got a degree in English at Radcliffe. Her mother, the editor of a bimonthly arts magazine in Washington, was forever dragging young Isabel to museums and introducing her to artists of renown.

Yet Swift, as she’s always quick to tell anyone who questions her sincerity, developed an unquenchable taste for romances when she was barely a teenager. In high school, she attempted to write a Regency romance with her best friend, Alessandra Stanley, now the New York Times bureau chief in Rome. (Stanley no longer has a copy, but she’s pretty sure Wicked Marquis was part of the title.) During college, Swift always had a romance on her night table, and shortly after graduating, she read five on one rainy Sunday – realizing not a moment too soon that she was going to need a job to support her habit. She found one as an editorial assistant at Pocket Books, then moved to Silhouette as soon as a junior editing position presented itself. She has been with the company, absorbed by Harlequin in 1984, ever since.

“I get very interesting reactions when I tell people that romances are my life,” says Swift, who at 45 still subscribes to Mad magazine and wears three studs in her left ear. “Many will tell me how stupid that is, and in a very straightforward and startling way, like, ‘Oh, they’re all the same!’ and ‘They’re all mindless fluff!’ Then I’ll wait 90 seconds, and they’ll say the classic, ‘Of course, I’ve never read one …’ “

At the moment, though, the contempt of strangers is the least of Swift’s concerns. Harlequin may publish more than 60 books a month, and its novels may be available in 100 countries around the world, from Oman to the Republic of Nauru. But the appetite for its products has precipitously declined in the past few years. In 1992, the company sold 205 million books worldwide; by 1999, that number had dropped to 158 million. A good deal of this has to do with quirks in foreign markets, and Harlequin has still managed to keep its profits up by slightly raising cover prices. But even in North America, where the economy has never been more chipper, Harlequin is selling 10 million fewer books per year than it did five years ago.

In some ways, a downturn in sales was inevitable. Back in the eighties, the romance industry exploded. Almost every publishing house had a romance imprint; seminars flourished on how to write them; the media ran hypey stories about how to get rich from them; a trade organization, the Romance Writers of America, was born.

Today most of those imprints have folded. But “women’s fiction,” a broader genre of which romances are just a part – Waiting to Exhale has a place under this umbrella, as does The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing – is booming. Harlequin, for a variety of reasons, is now considered the most downmarket provider of such fare, the McDonald’s of the women’s-publishing circuit. Its products are cheap, quick, fatty; billions and billions are served. “People don’t think that Harlequins are romance novels,” says Jennifer Crusie, an author who got her start at Harlequin and now has a handsome book contract with St. Martin’s Press. “They think they’re cheap, sleazy romance novels. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard somebody say, ‘as bad as a Harlequin romance,’ and you know that person has never read one.”

To make matters worse, the Harlequin author base has gotten older, and so have the readers for whom they write. “We don’t have many authors who are under 30,” says Swift. “We once had more.”

It falls to Swift to change all that. It won’t be easy: Today women have a bigger, more tantalizing buffet of entertainment to stoke their romantic and sexual imaginations. Buns on NYPD Blue. Mr. Big. And for the especially frisky, there’s always the Starr report.

But Swift is on a mission. She wants to drag Harlequin into the twentieth century, if not the twenty-first, and she has a plan for getting there. If she succeeds, the Harlequin brand could return to its old, formidable self – like a wilted heroine flowering in the arms of her baron.

“Cowboys. Babies. Secret babies …” Swift is walking purposefully through the production library of Harlequin’s New York office, rattling off the things that sell. “Amnesia. Marriages of convenience. Opposites attract. Twins …”

Acres of purple- and white-spined romance novels line the shelves, arranged chronologically by publication date. The Catch of Conard County. Cowboy on the Run. The Seductive Sheik.


“Sheiks are nice,” says Swift. “They’re a way of having an unbelievably macho guy, who’s macho not because he’s a jerk but because he was born into a culture that expects him to be that way.”

Swift says she read her first romance novel in eighth grade, when she was assigned Pride and Prejudice. Some people – Jane Austen, for example – might argue that this book belongs in a different category than The Catch of Conard County. That’s not how Swift sees it. “I think everyone extracts something different from what they read,” she says with a shrug. “And for me, the thing that continues to challenge and intrigue is the relationship. I see War and Peace as a romance.”

Swift heads out of the production library, toward the main hallway, and stops at a life-size cutout of Ricardo Montalban, who in the eighties was the television spokesman for Silhouette. (“Rrrromance,” he purred, “like eet once was, and could be again.”) Ricardo is wearing beads.

“We dress him up for the different holidays,” she says. “This must be left over from Mardi Gras.”

Then she starts down the main hall – a cheerful snuggery that looks not unlike a girls’ dorm at boarding school, with posters of hunks lining the walls (Russell Crowe, David Duchovny, Mel Gibson) and Harlequin paraphernalia strewn about (mouse pads, Valentine’s cards). One half-expects the editors to emerge from their offices wearing mud masks.

Swift’s company traffics almost exclusively in “category” romances. Each line (Romance, American Romance, Superromance, Temptation …) has its own special character and dimensions, like different phyla in a kingdom. The books of the “Harlequin Presents” line, for example, all have white covers with red trim and weigh in at 192 pages. They come out in clusters of six (this month: The Italian’s Revenge, The Pleasure King’s Bride, His Secretary Bride, Outback Mistress, The Unmarried Father, Rhys’s Redemption) and tend to favor wealthy heroes and fabulously international settings.

Single dads are hugely popular with Silhouette Intimate Moments and Harlequin Superromances. Any genre, it seems, can be improved by a doctor, a cowboy, or a horse. And Texas … ! Texas is huge, not only a state but a state of mind. According to Harlequin’s latest newsletter, three books due out in September alone have Texas in the title (Deep in the Heart of Texas, Slow Waltz Across Texas, The $10,000,000 Texas Wedding). And at the end of every month – whoosh! – they all get wiped off the racks, just like magazines, to be replaced by the next month’s shipment.

“Taming the beast,” Swift resumes. “That’s a classic theme – how you get a sexist guy who doesn’t like women. And there are different ways of playing out the fantasy, too, like the cranky guy with the teenage daughter, and you’re the one who can relate to her.”

If anyone can reinvigorate Harlequin Enterprises, it’s Swift. She is not, as one expects a romance publishing executive to be, a lacquered diva with eight rings on her fingers and an unnatural attachment to poodles. Actually, she’s fonder of rats, frogs, and guinea pigs, all of which she kept as pets when she was a kid. For her 30th birthday, she gave herself motorcycle lessons and drove across Montana on a Suzuki 500.

Swift spent the first nine years of her childhood bouncing from Tokyo to Baghdad to London before settling in Washington, D.C. Her father, now retired, worked in the clandestine-service element of the CIA. Her mother, at 73, still goes fox-hunting in Middleburg, Virginia. “Her mother’s a bit off the wall, actually,” says Davidson, Swift’s cousin. “She does exactly what she feels like doing; she doesn’t care what anyone else thinks. She doesn’t try to impress.”

Mary Swift’s eccentric streak found its way into the DNA of her child. Alessandra Stanley remembers her friend’s bedroom in Georgetown being decorated with all sorts of weird animal skulls “that looked prehistoric but were probably roadkill.” In seventh grade, Swift took her pet rat to school and sat through an entire French class with it wrapped around her neck, concealed behind a mop of curly hair. (“Are rats affectionate?” I ask. “When they’re your rats,” she answers.) In college, Swift wore glitter in her hair and dressed for parties as if they were casting calls for The Rocky Horror Picture Show – if she didn’t come dressed in drag, complete with a mustache made of dog hair, pretending to be her cousin’s boyfriend from Harvard.

Judging from her life at Radcliffe, no one would ever have divined that Swift was destined for a career in romance novels. She and her clique of female friends terrified men; they were outrageous, blisteringly self-assured, unconcerned with male approval. “We didn’t take that stuff seriously,” says Davidson, who lived with Swift. “We didn’t want to be arm candy, and when we had boyfriends, we didn’t want to be seen as part of a couple. We were really badass girls in that way.”

To this day, friends describe Swift as tough, self-contained, and intensely private. She lives through her mind, not her feelings or raw nerves. “She doesn’t confide,” says Stanley. “It took me several months just to figure out the basic … premise,” says her husband, Steven Phillips, whom Swift met at Smokey’s Barbecue fifteen years ago. “What intrigued me was the opaqueness.”

Just what, then, does a bright, no-nonsense, unsentimental woman like Swift see in The Lone Star Country Club?

“When I’m on the subway,” she says, “I just want to read something that gives something back. With romances, it’s the author saying, ‘Here’s a bit of sky!’ They’re exciting and fun and rejuvenating. They’re not dark or difficult. Plus,” she adds, “they’re a lot sexier than people think.”

Swift’s friends say it goes even deeper than that. “For Isabel,” says Elizabeth Glazer, a prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office who went to Radcliffe with Swift, “romance novels were Thomas Aquinas. She’d deconstruct them the way others deconstruct Foucault. And once you finished discussing it with Isabel at some length, you questioned yourself – this wasn’t some piece of junk you picked up. This was The Red and the Black.

Glazer adds that Swift does, if you look past her idiosyncrasies, have an old-fashioned, impeccably refined streak, which seems appropriate for a romance aficionado. Yes, she came to Harvard Fly Club parties dressed as a man, but as an exceedingly well-tailored one. She has perfect manners. Her fridge is stocked with wine and cheese. “There’s something slightly nineteenth-century about Isabel,” muses Glazer. “For all her eccentricity, she’s very civilized. She’s at home pouring tea.”

Swift loves to proselytize. At lunch with a new friend, Swift will casually slip her the latest from Nora Roberts, hoping to make a convert. Shortly after she began dating her husband, Swift gave him a romance novel, which he dutifully consumed on a three-legged flight from New York to Denver to Butte. “I discovered it was the greatest way to meet women with blue hair and polyester jumpsuits,” says Phillips, a warm, engaging M.D. who’s the international medical director of Exxon Mobil Corporation. “They’d stop in the aisle and look at me adoringly.”

He is sitting with Swift in their SoHo loft, a meticulously curated fun house of international art, animal skulls, and plastic superheroes (as if the Museum of Natural History had violently merged with Toys ‘R’ Us). Has he read any since?

“First and last I ever read,” he says. “But I recommend the genre to male friends. They explain a lot about the female imaginary needs for manhood.”

Phillips has his own theory about why his wife tears through romances like rice cakes. “She likes the best of humanity,” he says. “And I mean that in a totally non-saccharine way. She doesn’t want to deal with the seamy underbelly of human nature. Romance draws on such a positivist need.”

Swift isn’t completely buying it. “Being a romance reader,” she slowly says, “I am an optimistic person by nature. I really do feel like there’s a happy ending. I feel like happiness is achievable and that even finding the perfect guy is achievable. I actually found that in my husband.”

Phillips smiles.

“I really do feel like there’s a happy ending. I feel like happiness is achievable and that even finding the perfect guy is achievable.”

“But ‘the seamy underbelly of human nature …’ ” She lets the phrase hang.

“Well, it’s not that you don’t want to deal with it,” says Phillips. “You want to undo the knot.”

Many weeks later, I learn from a friend of theirs that Swift’s younger sister died in a plane crash while Isabel was still in college. Two weeks after that, I learn from someone else that Marnie Hagmann, one of Swift’s closest friends, died of breast cancer while both women were still in their thirties. Over the course of four interviews, Swift has never mentioned either event. The only personal upset she even hints at was her parents’ divorce, to which she is reluctant to assign any significance, despite the fact that she’s devoted her adult life to editing stories about finding love and lasting happiness.

It’s hard not to think about it. Here is Swift, working shingle by shingle and brick by brick to build perfect, rounded illusions. Yet she, herself, must have few.

The plot for The Lone Star Country Club is getting a little hairy. “So let me get this straight,” says Marbury. “We’ve got someone who’s after the mother. And the mother is fearing for her own, and the baby’s, life.”

“Right,” says Mary-Theresa Hussey, a senior editor. “She has gotten pregnant by Evil Guy – “

Swift sucks in her breath. “He can’t be too evil,” she says. “His genes.

Everyone laughs.

“Do we want her to be a teenager?” asks Marbury.

“She’s gotta be the witness to something.”

“Like corruption.”

“Is there something like the Mafia in Texas?”

The editors think.

“Maybe we can have someone assigned to her protection,” suggests Marbury.

“We can bring in a Ranger.”

“They can also be rich, and, you know, out for justice.”

“But isn’t that what we did with the Texas Cattlemen’s Club? Isn’t that what they do?”

“Yeah. They have a mission …”

Marbury is unfazed. “Yeah, but it’s to save a foreign princess,” she says. “So it’s pretty different.”

The first rule in romance fiction is that all stories – all – must have happy endings. (“What about Shakespeare in Love?” I ask. “We’d have fixed that,” says Swift.) The other rule – no exceptions! – is that the story must spotlight just one man and one woman. No depressing, messy love triangles. No cheating. And certainly, no muddling along with the wrong man for the first 200 pages.

Swift’s newest idea, which she hopes will be the next category bonanza, breaks both rules.

We want to know how you view romance and relationships in the new millennium! says a short notice Swift recently distributed at the national convention of the Romance Writers of America, inviting young authors to submit their City Girl manuscripts to Harlequin. These are books about women twenty-something and up, discovering themselves, sharing apartments, meeting men, making friends, struggling with jobs and looking for the ever-perfect diet … We see them meeting the wrong man – and not recognizing Mr. Right even though he may live next door. Or maybe they meet up with Mr. He’s Right For Me Now … and that’s enough of a happy ending.

By Harlequin standards, this is an insurrectionary document, the romance equivalent of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses.

No more happy endings? No more one-guy, one-girl sort of plots? And where the hell is Texas? Where are all the cowboys? Where are all the secret babies and women with amnesia and plastic surgeons falling in love with twins?

To hell with them. In England, Swift has noticed, Bridget Jones’s Diary has spawned an entire school of cheap paperback knockoffs, all of which are selling smashingly well. And here, the networks can’t get enough programming about single-girl discombobulation (Ally McBeal, Sex and the City, Will & Grace, etc.). “They’ve really tapped into something,” says Swift. “Something that’s very close to what we do.”

Swift admits she’s still not sure what the City Girl genre will look like, and actual books won’t be rolling off the presses for a while yet. But she’s convinced that whatever gritty realism attracted so many new young readers in England – the cramped flats, the career anxieties, the freewheeling hook-ups – will work the same commercial magic here too, if properly Americanized.

“It’s time for a shake-up,” agrees Nora Roberts, the industry’s Stephen King. “I mean really: How many more cowboy, secret-baby, Texas-style novels can the reader stand?”

But there’s more to Swift’s inspiration than Bridget Jones. If the traditional romance format reflects, as Swift’s cousin puts it, “a vicarious way for Isabel to be sentimental,” then City Girl books would reflect the unsentimental part of her, the part that embraces the world’s chaos and finds its own, oddball way to cope. In a very literal way, the genre would also reflect the spry, feisty Isabel Swift of years ago, the single girl who lived in a First Avenue railroad flat and wore leather miniskirts to work, and who wouldn’t marry until she turned 34.

“It is a category that has resonance for me,” admits Swift. “I don’t even want to tell you the chapter titles that Alessandra and I gave our early dating lives – I think one was Make Me Sick: The Paris Years. And another was But They Can Shtup the Natives …”

Launching the new line won’t be easy. Urban women are a foreign demographic to Harlequin Enterprises – both as readers and as writers. According to the Romance Writers of America, 60 percent of all romance readers live in towns of 50,000 people or less. Swift says a heavy concentration of her authors is in towns down South, a fact mutely confirmed by their author photos. (They all look like Bill Clinton’s girlfriends – wide smiles, teased hair, a soft casing of twenty extra pounds.)

Swift will face some near-insurmountable aesthetic challenges too. At the moment, though it may be perfectly acceptable for a Harlequin author to write “With Sebastian’s mouth at her breast, she quickly became drenched and ready,” it is not acceptable for her to use the word cocksucker – which a young urban writer might occasionally feel inclined to do. “You’re never going to hear fuck in a Harlequin,” says Jennifer Crusie. “I don’t even think they let me use shit. And definitely no blasphemy – no goddammits. I seem to recall that I had a lot of darns.”

But Swift curses. A lot, actually. Will there be cursing in City Girl novels? “I can’t imagine not,” she says. And will readers be willing to trade Mr. Right for Mr. Suffices-for-Now? Sounds dangerous. “I don’t think they’ll mind,” she insists.

Alessandra Stanley is convinced Swift can pull it off. “Isabel has a nonbelligerent sort of nonconformity,” she says. “For all her quirkiness,” agrees Swift’s friend Elizabeth Glazer, “Isabel’s in charge. Ultimately, she’s just like one of her heroines.”

The Dream Girl