Published in City Social magazine
By Susan D. Mustafa
“I go back so far in this business that my first editor, actually my first two editors, were men,” said Patricia Maxwell, better known as The New York Times bestselling author, Jennifer Blake, whose romantic novels have captured the hearts and fantasies of people the world over for 30 years.
Upon meeting Patricia, it is readily apparent why her characters exude Southern gentility, with just the right touch of strength and spirit. Patricia Maxwell is a lady whose gentle demeanor and soft, melodic laughter immediately conjure up images of tea being served in the parlor of a southern plantation home with the cool, running waters of a bayou in the background.
Yet the strength of her character shines through her own true-life story—the story of a young girl who quit school at the age of 15, married and had four children very early in her life, then educated herself through reading (sometimes as many as eight books per week).
“I must have been about four years old when I put the letters c a t with the cat,” Patricia said. “I was like, oh a miracle! This was reading. This was a word. I remember that as being just so exciting. I read constantly from that time on. I worked in the library when I was in junior high. One of the most exciting things about that was seeing the new books when they came in. I love books. I love the smell of books, the way they feel, and when they are new, they are so full of possibilities.”
Patricia spent her summers reading as a child. “We didn’t have TV when I was growing up, so I read. I do think that is something children miss today—that blank stretch of time that they have to fill in some way. These days they fill it with TV and video games, so they don’t have to use their imaginations.”
Having grown up in Quitman in northern Louisiana, Patricia is a fifth generation Louisianian. Patricia’s daydreams as a child were always very vivid. “Today I just direct the daydreams,” she said.
Patricia had a dream about medieval Scotland when she was 19. “I started putting it on paper, and as I did, it turned into a story. That was so much fun, I just started writing all sorts of things.”
She wrote poetry, articles and short stories. Patricia sold her first poem for $1. She started writing historical pieces for local newspapers, mostly about northern Louisiana, then became a stringer for the Monroe Morning World, writing streams of consciousness pieces. She then wrote a nurse gothic, tried to sell it, but it was too short, and it had logic problems. “Nurses were popular, and Gothic was popular, so I did a combination. I just wanted to write. I was practicing, really.”
“When I was first married, I worked with my husband, Jerry, in his business as the secretary and vice president. I would probably still be there if I hadn’t gotten pregnant. When I became pregnant, he hired help for the business and hired household help. That’s when I started writing. My youngest daughter, Kathy—that was my husband’s contribution to my career. I produced my last baby at the same time I produced my first book. Jerry was in the middle of building a business, so we built our careers together.”
One day, as Patricia was walking past Protho Mansion, she thought about what a great place that would be to use for a story. “I wrote it and sent it to a publisher with Writer’s Market,” she said. “It came back unopened. I then sent it to Fawcett Gold Medal. They said if I added 30 pages, they would buy it. That was 1970.”
Patricia has written nine Gothic romance novels, 18 historical romances, 18 contemporary romances and 10 novella collections. Four of her novels have been on the New York Times Top Ten Best Seller List and numerous others on the extended list. Her first 10 to 12 books were written longhand and transcribed on a manual typewriter. In 1984, she started using a computer, writing sometimes two 150,000-word books per year.
“I dropped out of school when I was fifteen, so I was self-educated,” she said. “I had to teach myself construction. The actual writing process of putting the words on paper is certainly easier after 30 years. But sometimes it’s still difficult to create a scene in such a way that the reader sees it the way you see it. There’s a fine line between explaining too much and not explaining enough.
“I’m a positive, upbeat person, so I like happy endings. I like it when the woman comes out on top. You have to give her problems to work through, but I want her to do it in an upbeat, positive way. I like to give my characters honor. I like the women to have the same sense of responsibility and honor as the male characters traditionally have had in fiction.”
Each story Patricia writes begins as a creation for herself. “I create the story for me to begin with,” she said. “But as an author of popular fiction, you have to be aware of your audience, what they like. There are times when stories pop into my head full blown, the stories, the characters, everything. One of my editors once said that it’s like a jukebox. Just put in a quarter, and it’s there. Sometimes there is a process that you go through. Once the basic story idea blooms, I have my own process. Each story must have five crises and a climax. I brainstorm usually 20 to 25 exciting situations, then I chose the best ones to write the story.”
Each scene must then have a purpose—specific information to create character conflict. “You don’t just create character traits because they are cute,” Patricia said. “Everything has to have a purpose.”
Patricia always falls in love with her characters, and her husband of 44 years is somewhere in all of her heroes—his attitudes, the green eyes, and the black hair. “After so many years of writing about the south and southern men, I came to realize that the southern gentleman is an archetype—like the knight in shining armor or the cowboy or Tarzan. There’s something about the manners, the courtliness and the concern for women that southern gentlemen possess that is very appealing to women. I wanted to explore that.”
Patricia’s Louisiana Gentlemen romantic suspense series explores that archetype through Kane, Luke, Roan and now Clay, published by MIRA Books. There will be Wade, which Patricia is working on now, and Adam, which will be part of a novella collection that will be out next June.
Clay is the fourth installment in the series and Patricia’s latest release. Publisher’s Weekly has hailed Clay as “powerful and poignant.”
“That was a little different from what they normally say,” Patricia said. “Maybe it was because this novel is about a child with kidney disease. I had to do a lot of research about how this disease affects the child and how it affects the mother—the trauma they have to go through, the pain, the medical processes. I became so involved with the problems of kidney patients during the course of writing this that I signed as an organ donor. If the reader takes anything of importance from this book, it would give me great satisfaction to know that donor cards were signed.”
Patricia has her own favorite characters among the many characters she has created, one of whom is the very articulate prince in Royal Seduction.
“So many women complain about men being inarticulate—that they can never say what they mean, that they never express their feelings. Rolfe of Ruthinia speaks in poetry. He talks constantly,” Patricia said. “The heroine finally tells him to say SIMPLY what he means.”
Thorn, the hero in Southern Rapture is another of Patricia’s favorites. Thorn is a nightrider during the reconstruction of Louisiana. He is trying to right some of the wrongs perpetrated by the carpetbaggers. By day, he is an injured Confederate soldier who awakens from a coma and pretends to have the mind of a 12-year-old. By night, Thorn rides out to right the wrongs of the war. He is living in a house with a Yankee schoolteacher, the heroine of the story, and romancing her as a 12-year-old.
“It becomes very comical because the reader understands the nuances of the things Thorn says, but the heroine doesn’t,” Patricia said.
Future projects will include a romantic suspense novel set in New Orleans that Patricia has been thinking about for the past four years. She has also mapped out a six-part historical series that she hopes to be working on soon.
Patricia recently spent the week in Baton Rouge, interviewing and hosting book signings at local bookstores before attending the Romance Writer’s of America Convention in New Orleans.
“The interesting thing about having been a writer for 30 years is the longevity aspect,” Patricia said. “About 10 years ago, Louisiana Tech wanted to house my literary legacy. This is a very strange feeling—they wanted my dead matter. Dead matter is the copyedited manuscript that is sent back to the author once the publisher is finished with it. It’s a lovely thing that someone would want my old manuscripts. It was very flattering, but I’m not through with my legacy just yet.”