Holly: Back in the early 2000’s, my life was a mess. I had just gotten out of a bad marriage, moved to a new state and started over. I’m not going to lie, I was in a bad place. My head was a mess. I had no friends. I was starting a new career. I was raising two kids on my own. It wasn’t pretty.
A few months after I moved to California, my mom went on a roadtrip with my grandparents. They love audiobooks and always had one available for their trips, and this was no exception. The book they were listening to was Killjoy by Julie Garwood. My mom came back and had about 4 hours of tape (CD? I can’t remember now which it was) and she holed up in her room to finish it, snapping at any of us who interrupted her. When she was finished she handed it to me and said, “Listen. Now.” My mother, gotta love her.
While I listened to the audiobook, she went to the library and found as many novels by Garwood as she could – most of which were historicals. When I finished the audiobook, she handed me the stack of library books and my life was changed forever. Prior to that, I’d read a few romance novels; mainly Harlequin category romances my friends and I would snicker over in high school, or the occasional romantic suspense. The majority of my reading centered around suspense and horror. Romance was so different. The focus was on the individual relationships, rather than the external actions. Happy endings were guaranteed. Which, for the most part, there were in mystery and horror as well, but this was different. This left me feeling warm and fuzzy inside.
Once I finished glomming Garwood’s backlist, I went in search of other romance novels. I found Hannah Howell’s His Bonnie Bride at my local Target, which I later discovered was a reprint of Amber Flame. I loved that book. It remains one of my favorite Howell’s to this day, partly because it was the first romance novel I discovered on my own, but mainly because it featured the first strong, kickass heroine I’d read (but that’s a post for another day). After glomming Howell’s backlist, I went online to find recommendations for additional authors.
I discovered Simon and Schuster’s author message boards when I did a search for Julie Garwood. There I found like-minded women who loved reading and romance just as much as I did. They played games, discussed their favorite scenes and characters, and talked about their lives. It wasn’t just a bunch of strangers in a chat room, it was an entire community of readers who looked after one another.
That’s where I met Rowena and Casee. I don’t remember how we first came to talk outside of those message boards, but I do remember feeling like they saved my life. Maybe that sounds a little dramatic, but it’s true. They may not have realized it, but they reminded me that life could be fun and silly, and that women could (and should) support one another. We bonded over Julie Garwood, Judith McNaught and Linda Howard. We swooned over the heroes and complained about the stupid things the heroines did. Then we talked about our lives; shared stories about our kids, our exes, our jobs. Reading romance reminded me that not all relationships were doomed and creating bonds with those women reminded me that I wasn’t alone.
Rowena: I read my first romance novel in January of 1999 and like Holly, my life was a mess. I just graduated from high school and nine months later, I was a mother. I was still a kid and yet I was a mother, too.
I grew up in a large Polynesian family with parents who were pretty religious. We went to Church every Sunday and we had family home evenings every week. I’m one of the youngest in the family bunch so I’m low man on the totem pole, but I looked up to my older siblings. I always wanted to please them. Same with my parents. I was the good girl. I wanted everyone to love me. When I graduated from high school and found out that I was pregnant, I freaked out. I thought my family, being the religious family they are, would disown me or that they’d kill me. I knew that they were disappointed in me, but they didn’t kill me and they didn’t disown me. They rallied around me and they took care of me and my new baby. Because of that, I wanted to please them even more. I did whatever they told me to do and I kind of lost myself. I spent most of the time tending to my newborn and trying to earn their respect back.
I would later learn that I didn’t need to earn anything back because we were family. Like Lilo said, “Nobody gets left behind” and they all adored my baby. Almost as much as I did. But it was a long time before I learned that lesson. While I was killing myself trying to please my family, I spent a lot of time at home being the family nanny. I had a lot of time on my hands when everyone was at work. My older sisters read romance novels and I’d see them around the house. I remember one day, I was so bored I picked up the first book that I came across and started reading.
I started that book and a passion for reading was born. I had to read everything that I could get my hands on and then I had to talk about it with someone. Nobody in my real life shared my love for these books, not even my sisters whose books I was reading. I stumbled upon the Julie Garwood Bulletin Board at S&S and it was there that I met Holly and Casee. It was through that bulletin board and meeting my new book friends that I started to live not only for my family and my baby, but also for myself again.
Before I started reading, I was living my life to please other people but reading romance gave me something that was just for me. I’ve never looked back.
What about you? Do you remember the first romance novel you read? Where and when did you get your start with the online romance community?