Called “the crown jewel of romantic comedy writers” by Book Page, Susan Elizabeth Phillips has become famous for her sparkling plots, colorful secondary characters, and protagonists’ obstacle-ridden paths to true love in books like This Heart of Mine and First Lady.
Susan Elizabeth Phillips believes if Jane Austen were writing today, novels like Pride and Prejudice would be sitting on the bookshelf alongside the love stories that she and her fellow romance novelists pen. "Oh, and one more thing," she said, wagging her finger at a Chicago Tribune reporter in 1999, "Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy should have kissed at the end of that story, and if I'd have written it, they would have -- and it would have been a good kiss, too."
Such sass is Phillips' calling card, and since her 1994 football romance It Had to Be You, she’s been stitching threads of humor into her romance novels.
"I'm not a particularly funny person in person. I can't tell jokes, but it just seems like it happened when I started to write," she told The Romance Reader in 1997. "It wasn't anything that was planned. I'm a very intuitive writer; I just sort of let the characters talk to me, and they started saying funny things, so I wrote them down."
A schoolteacher until her first son was born, Phillips began writing in the early 1980s with her best friend and neighbor. The two were both regular readers and decided to try their hand at a book of their own, plotting their story during nightly bike rides with their toddlers in tow. They got the name of a publisher at Dell who liked the book and published it under the pen name Justine Cole.
Her friend moved into a legal career, but Phillips continued writing and publishing, this time under her own name. She released what she calls her "big books," titles like Fancy Pants and Honey Moon featuring Hollywood starlets and jet-setting London socialites.
Her stories, she has said, moved outside of the mainstream after that. She gives her romantic characters emotional wounds and personal difficulties that often impede their inevitable happy endings. But without such obstacles, there would be no story.
"I've grown increasingly interested in writing about family dynamics and much less interested in sticking a psychopath with a gun in any of my books," she said in an interview with the web site iVillage. "Technically, I've simply learned how to capitalize on my own distinctive voice and how to be a better storyteller."
The healing process that the characters go through is what makes the novels work. "Creative plotting adds sparkle, and entertaining, well-drawn secondary characters round out the novel, but it is the growing, healing relationship between the protagonists and how they finally form a family that touches the heartstrings and makes this contemporary romance an unforgettable read," the Library Journal wrote in a review of Phillips' 2000 book First Lady.
The dialogue, she has said, is also important. The exchanges in romance novels are satisfying to women who love to communicate, she told USA Today. "Women really like to talk. That's one of our processes. We talk to gather information. Women love the connection that comes from conversation," she said. "My husband says we broadcast. He thinks through things before he talks, but he says women just kind of broadcast until they zero in on what they want to say."
Phillips has also disputed the notion that romance novels are nothing more than books about "throbbing thighs." They aren't about sex, she told the Chicago Tribune in 1992, but are instead complicated fictions about women taking charge of their lives and being the stories' heroes.
"The woman always wins the man," she said, "and he always gets tamed in the end."
Good To Know
Phillips wanted to publish her first novel under the pseudonym Chastity Savage, but her best friend and co-author nixed the idea.
Though two of her books -- It Had to Be You and This Heart of Mine -- have football plots, Phillips doesn't consider herself much of a sports fan. "In my mind, if you don't have to wear mascara to do it, it doesn't count as recreation," she told Book Page.
Her family helps her keep the details straight. Husband Bill was her technical adviser on describing Dallie Beaudine's golf game in Fancy Pants, and son Zach's interest in knives, guns, and dead insects surfaced in Teddy, the son of the novel's leading lady. He also wrote and recorded a companion CD to her title This Heart of Mine, which is available from her web site.