Life doesn’t always lead to Happily Ever After (or Happily For Now) – like a romance novel. However, romance novels tap into something deep in our heart and psyche – keeping us turning the pages to see just how it’s all going to unfold. You can use the lessons from fiction to craft your own personal love adventure. This week we’re talking to Mara Wells, author of Cold Nose, Warm Heart – about the craft of romance writing, to learn what fuels our real-life desires. You’ll avoid the mistakes that not only would destroy a good plot line – but that also would send a perfectly good relationship down the tubes. And you’ll get some ideas for how to keep the passion flowing when you’ve moved past seduction – to doing each other’s laundry.
As always, I’m looking forward to your thoughts on this episode and what revelations and questions it creates for you. Join us in the Relationship Alive Community on Facebook to chat about it!
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Check out Mara Wells’s website for more information about her novels.
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Neil Sattin: Hello and welcome to another episode of Relationship Alive. This is your host, Neil Sattin. What do we know about what drives the human heart? And not just in terms of love and connection but also in terms of desire. There are any number of ways to approach this question and I wanted to try something a little bit different in today’s episode because I happen to be good friends with someone who is an author in the romance genre. And I thought what would be better than to dive in to romance writing and to figure out what that can actually teach us about how we operate as humans. And if there weren’t something there, it wouldn’t sell millions and millions of books every year and so there’s clearly something there that romance writing taps into, and so I wanna mine it for all it’s worth with today’s guest. Her name is Mara Wells and she is the author of the new book, Cold Nose, Warm Heart, which is the first novel in the Fur Haven Dog Park series.
Neil Sattin: And I gotta say, it’s actually the first bit of fiction that I’ve read in years because I’m mostly reading non-fiction for this podcast and I really enjoyed it. It was just such a great escape for me to take a couple of days and dive into the world of Fur Haven Dog Park. And we’ll find out a little bit more about what that means but is as usual, we will have a transcript for today’s episode, which you can get if you visit neilsattin.com/romance or you can text the word Passion to the number 33444 and follow the instructions. And I think that’s it. Let’s just dive in. Mara Wells, thank you for joining us today on Relationship Alive.
Mara Wells: Thank you so much for inviting me, Neil. I really appreciate this opportunity.
Neil Sattin: You’re welcome. You’re welcome. And as I was talking just a moment ago, I had this sudden hesitation like, “Is it okay to call this a romance novel?” Is this a romance novel, what you wrote?
Mara Wells: It is absolutely a romance novel.
Neil Sattin: Okay.
Mara Wells: The definition of a romance novel is that you have a guaranteed Happily Ever After or at least Happily For Now. In the industry, the HEA or HFN, and if it meets that criteria, the guaranteed happily ever after ending and that the relationship is the primary focus of the story, it’s a romance.
Neil Sattin: Got it. Yeah, that makes sense.
Mara Wells: It’s a big, big world.
Neil Sattin: And I was wondering because as I was talking to a friend of mine about this interview, I was like, “Yeah, this… ” Like, it’s a romance book, it’s got sex and romance and relationship and she was like, “Well, there are a lot of books that have that.” So we were sitting with this puzzle of like, “Well, what does make it a romance book versus just like a good book that has sex and heart-centered interactions and steamy interactions and… ” So is that the working definition right there or is there more that defines it?
Mara Wells: Yes. A romance novel has a relationship as the primary focus, a romantic relationship as the primary focus of the story and then we have a guaranteed happily ever after ending or at least happily for now. Within the novel, there’s some expansion in the definition. Sometimes we see the happily ever after is guaranteed at the end of a series if we’re following one couple through a series but usually it’s contained within the one novel.
Neil Sattin: Got it. Yeah, and I think part of what fueled me as a reader was I knew that was gonna happen and I was wondering how it was gonna play out. So there’s maybe a bit of a beauty in that when you pick up a book like this where it’s like, okay, you know that it’s probably gonna work out, it’s gonna work out on some level. You may not know all the twists and turns, and discovering those twists and turns is part of what keeps you going.
Mara Wells: Right. We read for the twists and turns. We read for the journey and I think I’ve… Before I was a romance writer, I was a romance reader and so for me as a reader, there’s comfort in knowing what the ending is going to be and so I’m actually able to enjoy that journey more. And to see the ways in which it plays out individually for every different couple.
Neil Sattin: Now I hadn’t thought about this at all but just hearing you say that makes me wonder if there’s some element of that when you actually meet a person that part of why you can meet someone and within a few seconds you can make a snap decision about whether or not this person is gonna be a good person like a good fit for you, romantically. And that’s not always true, right? ‘Cause we can meet people where we don’t necessarily think that and then they surprise us because we get to know them a little better and we uncover the things that draw us to them. So it’s not true 100% of the time but I’m thinking back on any number of relationships that I’ve been in and wondering if that’s part of it. You meet someone and you’re like, “Oh, something’s gonna happen with this person and now let’s uncover the twists and turns that get us there.”
Mara Wells: Right. If we think of story and then also the story of our own lives as being focused on the journey rather than the outcome because unlike fiction, the outcome in real life isn’t guaranteed. But being able to focus on the journey makes that process enjoyable.
Neil Sattin: Right. Well, in terms of the happily ever after or the happily for now ending, I’m not really sure what that means for the genre. It wouldn’t surprise me if… It’s just the stereotypical… Like the movies, they never show you what happens after the people get together and that’s so much of what we face in our lives is we live that romantic journey that brings us together with a person but then there’s the laundry, I can’t remember who said that but.
Mara Wells: [chuckle] Right. And I think that’s actually one of the reasons why series are very popular in the romance genre because we live in the same world with the characters so, for example, in my series, book two goes on to follow… Caleb is the main hero of book one and he has a brother Lance who becomes the hero of book two and another brother Knox who becomes the hero of book three but Caleb doesn’t go away. So in book two when we’re invested in Lance and Carrie’s relationship, Caleb and Riley from book one are still around. And we get to see how their life is playing out as they become secondary characters in the series and I think that’s some of the delight of the series’ experience for readers and actually, I’m experiencing it as a writer now, that we do get to see what happens afterwards and who is doing the laundry. [chuckle] And how are they balancing all of the challenges that they had as a couple to get together. Did they actually come up with a working solution so they can stay together? And, of course, the answer in romance is they did.
Neil Sattin: But you get to see that in an ongoing way…
Mara Wells: Yes.
Neil Sattin: In which it… That’s cool. Yeah.
Mara Wells: Yeah.
Neil Sattin: Yeah.
Mara Wells: So you get to check in with them and who’s pregnant now and now what’s happening and… In my series, you get to see the dogs again and you get to see that that happily ever after is really actually happening.
Neil Sattin: Yeah. Wow. Now I really wanna read book two. I love how in Cold Nose, Warm Heart I love how the dogs play a role from the very beginning. You’ve got Caleb who enters this building and… Can I reveal a little bit of the intro of the plot?
Mara Wells: Yes. Absolutely yes.
Neil Sattin: So Caleb walks into this building and he’s on a mission to save the family business, resurrect the family business because it’s gone through this huge upheaval. And so he walks into this building that his grandfather has potentially offered him and he’s just noticing how it’s fallen into disrepair and there are just all these things wrong. But he’s also assessing it for its potential as an economic engine to revitalize the family business and then at some… One of the very first things that happens is this cute little poodle runs over to him. So he’s scratching the poodle and even that is a source of irritation for him because there aren’t supposed to be pets in the building but there’s this poodle that’s running over to him but he’s good with dogs like any good hero would be, I would think.
Mara Wells: Yes.
Neil Sattin: Right? The villain kicks the puppy, the hero scoops him up in his arms. And so, he’s cuddling the puppy and at the same time thinking about how he’s gonna have to fire the building manager, this horrible dude named Riley Carson who clearly is not doing his job. And then this beautiful woman runs down the hall to recover her escaped poodle and they get into this bantery conversation and in the end I think he asks her out for dinner. I might be remembering this not quite right but he’s like, “We should get dinner.” And she’s like, “You don’t even know my name.” And he’s like, “Well, what’s your name?” And she introduces herself as Riley Carson so… And that’s where the plot just goes from like, “Oh my god,” for me, like, “How am I gonna deal with this?” I’m reading a romance novel, ’cause that’s where I started, to like, “Oh my god, what’s gonna happen?” I had that initial like, “How is this gonna work out?”
Mara Wells: Right. And she says, “And you are?” And he says, “I’m here to fire you.”
Neil Sattin: Right.
Mara Wells: And so that starts off their… The trope is enemies to lovers, right? They’re on opposite ends. He wants to take the building down and rebuild it as luxury condos, she wants to preserve it and restore its art decor history. Both of them can’t have their way. How will that work out? And it occurred to me when you were describing the book, about how he’s coming in to assess the building and to think about it, its potential for the future. Isn’t that a nice metaphor for relationships as well?
Neil Sattin: Right. Right. And with maybe the interesting twist of that being with a building, there is the sense of like, “Well, if I had to, I could tear this sucker down and start over.” If you enter a relationship thinking, “Alright, I’m gonna tear this sucker down and start over.”
Neil Sattin: It might not be the best start.
Mara Wells: I think some people do. [chuckle]
Neil Sattin: They do. That’s for sure. That’s for sure.
Mara Wells: But he has to learn that that’s not the best way forward. There’s something beautiful about the history. There’s something beautiful about the cracks in the terrazzo and the crumbling facade that’s worth saving.
Neil Sattin: Right. Right. And I think one thing that’s really lovely about the plot of your book is that they do negotiate that and navigate that really beautifully in a way that makes it feel like change happens pretty organically, the way that change does happen in real life ’cause it’s not that people don’t change but when you wanna introduce wholesale change with a person, that’s a recipe for challenge and disaster. People resent that. And so, that initial tension, “I’m here to fire you,” and, “I’m gonna tear this whole place down,” that introduces that same level of conflict and resentment. “Well, wait a minute.” Like, “That’s not okay. You can’t take this place that I love and that I manage and just toss everyone out and… ” Like, “That’s not gonna work.” Just like in real life.
Mara Wells: Yes, I have a controlling belief in my own life that you can’t change people but people do change, so the opportunity to change comes and people will take it or they don’t but you can’t force it on them. I think what’s also interesting about the building as a metaphor is that Caleb is also not wrong. That place is deteriorating and there’s the population, it’s a 55 plus building so they’re all senior citizens, with the exception of Riley, the building manager. And they’re living in a building that the elevator is about to break down, that the plumbing is very inconsistent, that there’s a lot of hazards for them living there. So it can’t just go on as it is.
Neil Sattin: Right.
Mara Wells: It is deteriorating. He’s not wrong but she’s not wrong either. And for me that was the fun of the book, was how can they both… How can they be on opposite sides. And how do they come to understand.
Neil Sattin: Yeah.
Mara Wells: Yeah.
Neil Sattin: Yeah. So that makes me start to wonder about the general principles of romance writing and how we start extracting even more about what fuels us as humans. And I wonder if you can give us some insight into how those problems are so important to the structure of the form of romance writing.
Mara Wells: Yes. So my thinking about romance changed drastically a number of years ago when I read a book by Jayne Ann Krentz called… Oh, of course my brain just blanked on it. Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, and it’s a sort of academic treatise about the romance genre in which she argues that romance is inherently feminist because what it’s ultimately arguing for is a balance. A Yin Yang balance by the end of the book, that nobody has more power than anybody else in a relationship, in the world that’s created in the book, that ultimately all romances the arc is toward balance and partnership, equal partnership. And I think that’s a really beautiful way of thinking about it. [chuckle] There are many tropes and almost inside jokes in romance at this point and one of them is that the hero has to grovel at some point. He has to be taken down a peg.
Mara Wells: And that doesn’t happen. Again, anything I say about romance isn’t true of every single romance but there are definitely trends that we see. But again, it’s not that he’s being taken down, it’s often that men do have more power, especially in particular societies and time periods that the stories might be happening in. And so, it’s not that they have to be taken down to be taken down, it’s that if we’re going to have an equal partnership, there has to be an acknowledgement of who has advantages and who doesn’t, and a balancing of power.
Neil Sattin: Yeah. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. And how does that stack up for you in terms of the differentials in power being part of what creates the tension versus wanting to end up at a place that feels more balanced?
Mara Wells: So I think the driving force in writing romance for me has been that there are these disparities between them, there is this unequal balance. Caleb is from a very privileged family, Riley is not, something as basic as that, but ultimately they desire each other. There’s some sort of attraction that they just can’t shake. And there are moments of rejection where it’s like this just can’t work, this person is not for me but it’s that desire that brings their attention back to each other over and over again. So I’m not sure what I’m saying there except perhaps that the logical reasons we might choose to stay or not stay with somebody are overridden in romance by this attraction, this desire, this wanting, and the wanting is for everything that other person is. And often, the other person has some aspect of life that the hero or heroine is lacking.
Mara Wells: So Caleb has this money, this privilege, this utter confidence that anything he does will turn out right and Riley needs that. But Riley has connection and love and family, and Caleb doesn’t and he needs that. So the physical attraction is, again, I think a metaphor for attraction to the missing parts in their own lives.
Neil Sattin: Yeah, and that is super true in real life for sure, is that we often connect with other people who illuminate aspects of ourselves that are underdeveloped or that we really want or need in our own lives. And at the same time, they can highlight the places where we might feel incompatible or like, “Well, that person, they don’t have strong ties with their family. So how could I be with that person?” And I think that represents some core conflicts that people… Inner conflicts that happen in the choice of a partner is navigating that question of like, “Well, okay, they have these things that I don’t have and I want that or they don’t have these things that I do have and that frightens me.” Yeah.
Mara Wells: Right. And the choice to move ahead in the relationship anyway is always a risk because as much as you might long for something that’s not in your life, it’s also not in your life for a reason. Right? Some fear perhaps is holding you back, some hurt from the past has shut down that part of yourself and so you can long for it and be afraid of it at the same time.
Neil Sattin: Yeah.
Mara Wells: So it’s attraction and repulsion can be happening in the same moment.
Neil Sattin: In the same moment. Yeah.
Mara Wells: Yeah. And then…
Neil Sattin: Yeah. And you see that in the characters in your book. I’m thinking about the way that they are, even in this initial scene where they are sussing each other out and then you also get a glimpse into their inner monologue around the proximity of their hands on the dog’s back. They’re both petting the dog and their fingers are a mere inch apart and how many times does that happen where you’re in that moment of wondering like, “Well, what would it be like to just cross the distance?” What would it be like to actually follow through on an impulse and at the same time to have all those inner resistances coming up like, “Well, here are all the reasons why I shouldn’t do that.”
Mara Wells: And I think we, in real life, we’re socialized that certain things are acceptable and not acceptable in interactions and we navigate our lives very carefully. And I think the promise of romance is that when you reveal who you really are, your partner loves you. That it’s unconditional acceptance of the good and the bad. And of course, it’s the bad that we’re hiding for most of the book. [chuckle]
Neil Sattin: Right.
Mara Wells: But the worst has to come out at some point so that the person can be loved with that as part of the understanding.
Neil Sattin: Right. Exactly. Exactly. Or else it sets you up for a disastrous book two of the series.
Mara Wells: Yes.
Mara Wells: Yes. The new couple can’t be getting together while the couple from the first book is breaking up like that.
Mara Wells: That is not acceptable.
Neil Sattin: Yeah. Yeah. Just out of curiosity, when would that be acceptable in a romance book for a couple to part ways? Would it ever be acceptable?
Mara Wells: That is the type of relationship that happens before the book starts. So we might have heroes or heroines who are coming out of a bad relationship or a relationship that wasn’t quite right for them but we don’t… Yeah, I’m trying to go through the library in my head but again, the promise of romance is that happily ever after.
Neil Sattin: Right.
Mara Wells: So even if a couple does break up over the course of the story, they are gonna get back together.
Neil Sattin: Right. Right. So if you’re a long time listener of the show, you might understand that that kind of ending, I might feel a little jaded about that at the present moment.
Neil Sattin: And Mara, you… We’ve known each other a long time so you know that as well. And in fact, that was maybe my hardest, the hardest thing for me in the book as just someone who’s been through a divorce is appreciating every single aspect of the journey. And then there was something about the happily ever after that I loved. It actually brought tears to my eyes as much as I hate to say it but it did and at the same time I was like, “Damn.” Like, you went all the way there, in those last couple of chapters and I was like, “Did it have to? Did it really have to?” But maybe someone like, where splitting up is slightly less fresh for them would appreciate that a little bit more.
Mara Wells: Right. And the other thing is that romance is in many ways a fantasy of what… It’s a fantasy of equality and equal partnership, right?
Neil Sattin: Mm-hmm.
Mara Wells: It’s not claiming that this is real. It’s not saying, “This is how all relationships work out.” It’s saying, “Wouldn’t it be beautiful if this is how relationships worked out? Isn’t this something to aspire to?”
Neil Sattin: Yeah. Yeah, so there’s that danger, I suppose, in… There’s the way that it can fuel us, that ideal, and I think that vision is such an important aspect of how we construct our relationships, holding on to an ideal vision, and at the same time, being willing to accept imperfection as part of real life versus what happens in a fantasy novel.
Mara Wells: Right.
Neil Sattin: Yeah. Yeah, it’s a tough balance but the beauty, I guess, of a book, is that you can preserve the fantasy of where romance takes us, which is… Yeah.
Mara Wells: Right. And the… You know, the first step of change in the real world is imagining that change can happen. And so, I think, in a lifetime of reading romance, that’s what I’m imagining, right?
Neil Sattin: Mm-hmm.
Mara Wells: That that change is possible and equal partnership is possible, and that there’s hundreds of thousands of ways for that to play out. You know, Caleb and Riley’s journey is not your journey, but it’s a journey.
Neil Sattin: Right, right. What have you loved about… What drew you to romance as a reader, I guess, first? And then I’ll be curious to hear about that as a writer, ’cause you haven’t always been writing romance.
Mara Wells: I started reading romance when I was about 10, which is probably on the young end of the spectrum, for reading romance. [chuckle]
Neil Sattin: I know, I was thinking about that, actually, with this book. I was like, “Well, it’s about dogs.” And I couldn’t find my copy, the first copy of the book that you sent me, I couldn’t find it. I have the sneaking suspicion that it could have ended up upstairs in my daughter’s room, ’cause it’s about dogs, you know? So, I should go look a little bit more thoroughly [chuckle] for that, probably.
Mara Wells: Yes. Luckily, we don’t outgrow our love of dogs. So, I started young, but I think it was piggybacking right off my love of fairy tales. I would dress up as Cinderella for Halloween for almost every Halloween of my childhood. So, I loved fairy tales a lot and romance novels seemed to me to be the grown-up version of fairy tales. And I think you can see a little bit of Cinderella in Cold Nose, Warm Heart.
Neil Sattin: Yeah, absolutely.
Mara Wells: Yes.
Neil Sattin: Now that you mention it. [chuckle] There’s even a fairy godmother. Oh my gosh, that’s funny. Okay.
Mara Wells: Yeah. [chuckle]
Neil Sattin: But there is no wicked… I’m just trying to think. There’s no evil stepmother, really. There’s the absent mother, which may be is a little bit, right?
Mara Wells: Right, there’s the absent mother. And I think that I personally don’t believe in evil people that are just purely evil. And so, the… Caleb’s family is evil. His dad is evil, right?
Neil Sattin: Right, right.
Mara Wells: But even they have redeeming qualities. Nobody is the villain in their own story, so they might appear villainous in someone else’s story, but they have their reasons. They’ve made the best choices they can make.
Neil Sattin: Yeah. Yeah, so important to recognize ’cause I think that is a part of how we victimize ourselves, is by projecting someone else being evil onto them, as opposed to looking for, “Well, what was their intention?” I don’t think I’ve ever done that with the Cinderella story, is like, well, what… You know, the stepmother, she was just trying to get those dresses made for her daughters, she was just… I mean, she did say some pretty cruel shit to Cinderella, you gotta admit, but… [chuckle]
Mara Wells: Yes. Yes. Or not… Yeah. No one is at their best all the time. [chuckle]
Neil Sattin: Isn’t that the truth? Yeah. So, it being an extension of that, that’s what drew you in. And then, what drew you to writing in this genre?
Mara Wells: I’ve been writing for a long time, and I had published a young adult novel many years ago. And I was just feeling really frustrated, and I had written this book that had gotten many, many beautiful, beautiful rejections.
Mara Wells: And I had done one more round of revisions and sent it to my agent, and she said, “So, what are you gonna work on next?” And I just started crying, I was like, “I don’t know. I feel like I’ve been knocking on this door for so long, and it’s never gonna open again.” I had my shot and that was it. And I said, “I can’t even stand to read anything right now, except romance novels. I’m just binging romance novels, many, many, many per week.” And she said, “Well, why don’t you write a romance novel?” And I was like, “Oh, ha ha ha. I’m not gonna ruin my one true escapist thing that I do to escape the world. That’s my hobby, that’s my relaxation time. Why on earth would I turn that into my job?”
Mara Wells: But she kept talking to me, and she convinced me to do it. And that’s why I had been avoiding it for all these years, was I thought if I became a writer of romance, I’m going to read them differently, more critically, more craft-oriented. But what I found is that I have the same joy in writing the romance novels that I have in reading them. So, I’m really excited that she pushed me in that direction because writing has become more joyful for me now. I enjoy figuring out the twists and turns along the way, and what made me a romance reader is really feeding the romance writing, as well. So, I’ve been telling people we get advice, as writers, all the time, to write what you know, which I think is pretty terrible advice ’cause we have a pretty limited worlds, [chuckle] most of us.
Mara Wells: But I think “Write what you love” is very good advice.
Neil Sattin: Yeah. And that comes through. One, I have to say your skill as a writer comes through in reading the book. There was never a place to me that felt awkwardly worded or there were places where I could tell that I was like, “Oh, that’s kind of an inside joke.” Or “That’s Mara being clever.”
Neil Sattin: And I liked it. I loved it. And so your skill as a writer definitely comes through and for it being your first book in this genre, like that… I think your love of the genre also came through, your knowing it backwards and forwards, in the way that the journey was really useful for me.
Mara Wells: I’m glad.
Neil Sattin: Yeah.
Mara Wells: Yeah.
Neil Sattin: I have a confession to make, which is that this is the first romance novel that I’ve ever read cover to cover. There are plenty of romance novels, mostly in my teens, I would say, and early 20s when it was really hard to access anything that was remotely erotic or sexual.
Neil Sattin: Where I would skip to… I’d find a romance book and I’d skip to the good parts that I never… I don’t know what happened in any of those books. I just know that who fucked who basically and so it was nice, actually, to sit down and really enjoy the whole way through which was… It was cool. Cool to experience that. What do you think… Let’s talk about the erotic for a minute because we’re talking about longing and attraction and… What is it that fuels eroticism in a romance novel and yeah, makes it compelling in that way? What… Something that turns us on.
Mara Wells: I think it’s the longing. I think it is that moment of not knowing if you should touch fingers or not, that plays out later in the sex scenes. So that the thing that makes the sex scenes very satisfying is tension and longing that lead up to it. So I would say to your younger self, who was just skipping to the erotic scenes like, You missed out.
Mara Wells: You missed the part that made…
Neil Sattin: Oh, poor guy.
Mara Wells: Yeah, that made those scenes more powerful because they are finally a release of this tension and a culmination of this partnership and that ultimate integration of the opposites. So I think it’s the wanting that makes having satisfying. But that said, there are… In romance, we call it heat levels. There are varying degrees of heat levels and so it spans from the story ends with kissing, right? That once they kiss, we know that they’re gonna have their happily ever after and we never see more than that, that’s one end of the spectrum and on the other end, we have erotica. And the romance novels fall all along that spectrum of heat. So I will say that when I decided to write romance, I was nervous about that part of it. [chuckle] And I read all over the heat spectrum. I enjoy all of it but I didn’t know as a writer where I would fall comfortably.
Neil Sattin: Yeah. And so was that just a discovery process for you or did you have a target heat level or…
Mara Wells: Yes. I did not have a target heat level, I just thought, “Well, let’s see how it goes.” So I got to the part in the first draft where I knew that I had to write that scene. That scene. And at the time, my father was living with us because he had been having some medical problems and I tend to write early in the morning, and he’s an early riser and he kept… He would wander through the room that I was working in and talk to me, and I was like, “Oh, I can’t… I can’t write this scene.”
Mara Wells: Thinking that my dad’s gonna walk in any moment, right? I just can’t. I can’t.
Mara Wells: So I went… [laughter] So I put it off until I had some time and I went to a coffee shop that’s in my neighborhood and I sat there. I have this couch I like to sit on and I wrote it, and I was pretty happy with it. I was feeling very proud and then I looked up and I’m sitting in this room with music playing, surrounded by a bunch of people and I had been so much in my own little bubble world there that I… I just remember feeling so hot, I know I must’ve blushed dark, dark red and I texted my friend Kait Ballenger who’s been a really beautiful, wonderful mentor for me on this romance journey and I was like, “So I just wrote my first sex scene in a coffee shop and I don’t know how I feel about that.” And she texts back, “Welcome to Romancelandia.”
Mara Wells: “You’re gonna find yourself writing them in lots of places.” [chuckle]
Neil Sattin: That’s so funny. And even the… For me, I think about what runs through our head potentially when we’re at a coffee shop so there’s that level and even the beautiful aspect of your father walking through the room or that fear of what that’s like to feel. How many parents of young children are trying to find time to be sexual but the kids could bust in at any moment. And you’re in the bathroom with the shower on and the door locked and hoping that they don’t pound for too long ’cause that would be child abuse, right? If they’re like, “I can’t get in.” Never been there, so…
Mara Wells: Yeah. [laughter]
Neil Sattin: Yeah, so that’s some of the real life aspects of it as well. In terms of determining the heat level, is that about language or…
Mara Wells: Yeah, it’s about specificity. And so I think that I landed in a heat level that I… This is not a technical term, but I call soft focus. So we have some idea of what’s going on, but I haven’t really zeroed in on every breath, every touch. It’s kind of I picture the camera pulled back and we got kind of a fuzzy lens on.
Neil Sattin: Right, which leaves some up to the imagination.
Mara Wells: Yes, yes. And so, you can go less heat than that where it’s even more fuzzy, I guess you could say, and then other novels get much steamier and more specific in what’s going on.
Neil Sattin: Yeah, I actually have another friend that… Someone that I’ve known even longer than I’ve known you, who writes… I wonder I should chat with her, she might consider it more erotica than romance, but it’s all based around aliens so it’s people having sex with aliens. And I imagine you have to get fairly explicit and it still leaves a lot up to the imagination once you’re dealing with alien body parts.
Mara Wells: [chuckle] Yes.
Neil Sattin: And I’m taken back… I actually wanna just mention that I feel somewhat vulnerable and laid bare with that talking to the young part of me, and that is interesting for me to just sit within this moment, that sense of how much what fuels attraction and those maybe moments of culmination where you’re actually kissing someone or you’re being sexual with someone. How much of that is the longing, the tension that leads up to that moment? And this is a classic challenge for… And it’s not really necessarily a gendered thing, but some people are just sexual and they don’t actually need all of that build up. They’re able to talk about sex, think about sex, and then let’s have sex versus there are other people who are more focused in the tension, the build up, the longing and that just needs to be there in order for there to be fuel for the actual coming together, so to speak, to be desirable. You don’t get there without the tension and the longing, for those people.
Mara Wells: And then what happens when you’re in a long-term relationship?
Neil Sattin: Right, right.
Mara Wells: And that tension and longing has been satisfied. Then what fuels desire?
Neil Sattin: Yeah.
Mara Wells: Then I end the book so the rest is for you to figure out.
Neil Sattin: Right. Right, I don’t have to figure that out. Yeah, that’s why those characters become secondary and tertiary characters. You just get to assume that they’re doing whatever it takes to make that happen. Yeah, but that is the big challenge of any long-term relationship is how do you fuel passion and juice? And so often this falls into what we were talking about a few moments ago where people land in different places and it’s very common for someone who needs tension and longing to end up with someone who doesn’t. And so how do you do that, how do you… How do you cross worlds? And it’s a challenge for both people to figure out ’cause sometimes that person who needs the tension and longing, it’s helpful for them to figure out what do I need to do in order to show up so I can just be in a sexual experience with my partner that didn’t require sexy texts for three days to get us to this moment?
Neil Sattin: And vice versa. Where the 0-60 in 0.3 seconds partner can be like, Alright, what do I need to do to… What does get my partner in the mood? What helps them, what helps fuel their desire, so that they’ll meet me there ’cause it’s so easy for me, it may not be for them. And it’s actually not a problem with them, it’s just how they’re wired. They’re wired differently.
Mara Wells: Yeah, and the romance answer to that is both people are right. And the relationship is about negotiating that. How do you accept that about your partner and integrate that into your life together?
Neil Sattin: Yeah, yeah, I like that for a real life answer as well.
Neil Sattin: That both people are actually right and so if both people are right, what does that mean? That forces us to get creative as opposed to making the other person wrong and then forcing them to change, which was one of the very first things we were talking about. Forcing them to change, being not the most sustainable approach. Yeah.
Mara Wells: If you wanna stay together. If you’re looking for a way to break up, it’s probably fairly efficient.
Neil Sattin: Yeah.
Mara Wells: But this also makes me think about… Romance has had a history of readers being shamed for their reading choices and I think in the past few years, the conversation has really changed where romance writers are pushing back and saying, What’s shameful about female desire? What’s shameful about fantasy, right? Why do we call it a guilty pleasure? Why can’t we just call it a pleasure…
Neil Sattin: Yeah.
Mara Wells: To read. And I think that that extends beyond reading choices. I think that in relationships as well, you can’t have a guilty pleasure or a secret desire that you’re keeping from your partner and have that work out long term. And so I think part of romance’s job is to take the shame out of whatever desire people feel because again, ultimately, that happily ever after is guaranteed, and the partners have to accept each other exactly for who they are. So whatever is revealed over the course of the novel is accepted and loved. And isn’t that a beautiful thing to think about happening in the world as well?
Neil Sattin: Yeah, definitely, definitely. Yeah, I hadn’t really thought about that. There is that place where… And shame is kind of the… What’s the word I’m looking for? Shame is the challenge of someone who maybe is a little kinky, where something being a secret or being taboo does fuel them, does create a little bit bit of charge and juice for them, and shame is the shadow of that. The potential for it to feel shameful because most people aren’t turned on when they’re feeling shame. They’re looking for a way to escape from that feeling of shame. So yeah, I hadn’t really… That hadn’t occurred to me, that romance in and of itself could be a way to reduce the shame that people feel around different kinds of desire and as a way of experiencing differences as being acceptable and accepted. Yeah. No wonder I liked your book so much.
Neil Sattin: Yeah. I think it’s instructive. As I was reading it, maybe because there are aspects of it that are when you read it, you know. I knew, “Okay, this is when… I can see it coming. This is when they’re gonna kiss for the first time,” and it’s like… So even the knowing, there was something about it that… Yeah, I feel like in this moment, could actually be more instructive for a person to read than reading a book that talks about how you might need tension in order to fuel longing in a… You might need tension and wanting and desire, and it’s enough to know that that’s true, but then to actually read a romance novel, I think it gives you a sense of how that actually plays out and how that works.
Mara Wells: Right. And do you know that they’re going to kiss? And you can feel that kiss coming, and it’s that anticipation doesn’t ruin the fact that they’re going to kiss. It sweetens it. And so you keep reading, not because you’re like, “Maybe they’re not gonna kiss,” but because they are and you wanna see how it goes down.
Neil Sattin: Yeah.
Mara Wells: Right? Because every first kiss is different and every moment, every intimate moment that people share together, there might be certain moves or phrases that various scenes have in common, but ultimately, every moment is unique. And that’s what draws us to it, and it’s not… I don’t know, it’s not… It’s predictable, but not in the negative sense of that word. It’s predictable in that sense of anticipation way.
Neil Sattin: Right. Right, that phrase, “How’s this gonna go down?” That actually came up for me several times as I was reading where I was like, “Alright, how’s this gonna… I know that something… This is gonna work itself out somehow, or this, I know this twist, or I know there’s a twist coming. What’s it gonna be like? How’s that gonna go down?” And yeah, it really kept me engaged as a reader and I loved escaping for… Yeah, it was the better part of… I guess it was most of a day and then the day before or a half of the day before where I was just like… That’s the privilege of being able to read as part of my living is I could just set a day aside to do that. It felt good. I might have said a guilty pleasure, but I’m not gonna say that anymore.
Mara Wells: There’s nothing guilty about it.
Neil Sattin: Yeah.
Mara Wells: I just heard a statistic that romance readers read four times as many books as other types of readers. So I think you can see the… You got a little taste of what drives that market.
Neil Sattin: Yeah. Yeah, I guess I did.
Mara Wells: Right?
Neil Sattin: What surprised you about your book? As you were writing it, knowing that there’s a form to the genre, what… Yeah.
Mara Wells: This isn’t always true, again, but my book is in a fairly standard point of view, which is alternating between the hero and the heroine, third person close. And I had never written a male point of view before.
Neil Sattin: Wow.
Mara Wells: I just decided to. And so I think that I was surprised all along the way at how much Caleb had to say and his attitudes, and I guess it shouldn’t be surprising because obviously he came out of my mind, but it’s like, “Oh, he’s just a person too. There’s nothing scary about writing a male point of view.”
Mara Wells: But the thing that absolutely surprised me is in the first scene where we meet Riley’s grandmother and I found out that she’s still in love with her ex-husband, ’cause I thought they were just straight up enemies. That I hadn’t been planning on, but then it turned into a delightful thread in the book. I enjoyed writing the senior citizen romance quite a bit.
Neil Sattin: Yeah, yeah, this is one of those things where I’m for you, listening, it’s so hard for me to not do any spoilers or plot reveals here because there are so many beautiful moments that I would be sharing with you right now, Mara, because I just loved how they went down and also some of the… ‘Cause it’s not all sweetness. There’s a lot of sarcasm, there’s a lot of people digging each other in ways that are affectionate, but also quite cutting at times. But the whole way along, I felt very uplifted at the same time, that people were being really honest with each other. And so I think that the temptation in being like, “Oh, this is a romance novel, that’s the fantasy of romance,” is to feel like the interactions somehow don’t feel real, but I didn’t feel that way at all, as I was reading. In fact, you’re talking about Caleb’s point of view, the male point of view. That’s another place where it felt very seamless to me, where I was never like, “Oh I would never, as a guy, I would never think that.” Everything he was thinking, I was like, “Yeah, of course, that’s exactly what I would be thinking in that moment.”
Mara Wells: That’s funny. What you were saying about the conversations feeling real and the interactions, it reminded me of something that the writer Richard Peck said in a workshop that I took with him one time. He said, “If you’re gonna have a ghost in the scene, you better describe the wallpaper.”
Mara Wells: When you have a fantasy element, you have to… The real world of the story has to be absolutely grounded, and I think that that happily ever after isn’t believable if everything has gone smoothly and people are all sweet and nice to each other for the whole thing, that doesn’t… Right? That doesn’t feel real. So the satisfaction of the happily ever after is that it did feel real and they had real problems, and yet somehow managed to transcend that to be together.
Neil Sattin: Yeah, that’s I think what part of what makes it inspiring, is that it feels real along the way.
Mara Wells: Yep. And I do describe the wallpaper. I describe the building a lot, so…
Neil Sattin: That’s true. Now that you mention it, that is true.
Mara Wells: Yes. My great love of South Beach architecture comes through, I think.
Neil Sattin: Yeah. Yeah, and I felt like I was there, even though I’ve only been there once or twice in my life, but it was very vivid, but not in a burdensome way. Some people really get off on reading a lot of scene and setting stuff, and I am not one of those people. I’m like, “Give me the… What’s happening? Okay, enough, there are some flowers. What’s happening?”
Neil Sattin: Thought you balanced that really well. Yeah.
Mara Wells: Thank you.
Neil Sattin: Well, Mara Wells, congratulations on your first book being out. And in our understanding is that it’s doing really well. I saw a lot of really good reviews on Amazon. It’s called Cold Nose, Warm Heart. If someone wants to find out more about you and what you’re doing, what do they do? Where do they go?
Mara Wells: They can go to my website, marawellsauthor.com and sign up for the newsletter. And then I’m also on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
Neil Sattin: Awesome. And how many…
Mara Wells: Marawellsauthor.
Neil Sattin: How many books are coming out in the series, at least as far as we know at the moment?
Mara Wells: As far as we know at the moment, there’s three. So book two is called Tail for Two, it comes out in July, and Paws for Love comes out March 2021.
Neil Sattin: Awesome. Congratulations.
Mara Wells: Thank you so much.
Neil Sattin: Yeah, I’m really excited for you. And actually, before… We gotta address the dog thing for a minute.
Mara Wells: Oh, okay. [chuckle]
Neil Sattin: So first, why dogs? Why did you personally make that choice to bring dogs into the mix?
Mara Wells: Well, my mother was a dog breeder, so I grew up with the dogs as part of the family. And I’ve had dogs all my adult life, and I just… I’ve been thinking a lot about the relationships we have with animals, especially our pets, and how they’re not humans. They aren’t humans, but they are still part of our lives, really important part of our lives and part of our families, but they don’t speak and they don’t act human. [chuckle] And so it’s this weird… I’m just fascinated by the interspecies aspect of it and how passionately we can feel for dogs because they aren’t complicated human beings with other motives going on that we don’t know about. They’re just love. And if I’m gonna write a romance novel in which unconditional love is an important part, who better to model that for us than dogs?
Neil Sattin: Yeah. Yeah, I think it’s hilarious. I hadn’t really even considered this until this moment, but you know this and actually a lot of my listeners know that part of what led me to relationship work was my prior life as a dog trainer. So we both have that actually, which I hadn’t even really thought about a lot, but… And part of that journey for me was that very thing that you just mentioned about how much dogs are about heart and expression of heart energy. And so that was something that I really appreciated in the book. The dogs and their heart and their personality, they wove in in ways that also seemed very authentic, and I liked that. You just described it beautifully, the way that they’re woven into the fabric of who we are, it felt natural, it felt more… There was more texture, really, for me in what I was reading because those beings were included as well.
Mara Wells: Thank you.
Neil Sattin: Yeah. Funny, what an interesting thing that we have in common there.
Neil Sattin: Yeah. And so it’s a series that revolves around a dog park.
Mara Wells: Yes.
Neil Sattin: Yeah. What keeps that interesting? [chuckle]
Mara Wells: Well, [chuckle] there’s an infinite number of dogs and the people attached to them who can come through the dog park. So it gives me a very rich tapestry to pull from, I guess, of characters for upcoming novels. And I think it’s a pre-test of people. If you have a dog, then you love the dog and the dog loves you. So you’re pre-approved as a decent person, deserving of a novel, perhaps.
Neil Sattin: I love it, I love it.
Mara Wells: Yeah. I was looking for some sort of premise that has the potential for new people to be coming and going. And when we first moved to South Beach, the first place that we made friends was at the dog park.
Neil Sattin: Yeah?
Mara Wells: Yeah. And so the first parties we went to in South Beach were hosted by people we met at the dog park. And so I know that it’s a very fluid and welcoming community.
Neil Sattin: Yeah, yeah. And you point out well in the book the ways that when you know people that way, there’s so much that you don’t know about them because generally you have those conversations that are about your dogs and things that impact your dogs, but… And I like that uncovering that happens in your book about how those people also get to know each other in a more deep way, which is really sweet to follow. And so funny in real life when you’re like, “Yeah, I’ve been hanging out with you for three years and I don’t know anything about you.” I’ve had those conversations with people before where it’s just like, “Yeah, we were dog park friends.”
Mara Wells: Yep.
Neil Sattin: And then here in Portland, Maine, where I live, we had this dog park that was known all over… There were some national public radio stories about it. I think it was very early in the dog park era that this dog park existed, but unfortunately it was also in a historic old cemetery so the people who were the preservationists of the cemetery, and maybe the big wealthy houses that surrounded the cemetery, at a certain point decided that they didn’t like hundreds of people showing up there with their dogs.
Neil Sattin: So that actually went away. There are other dog parks in this town that I haven’t explored, but that used to be such a community center. So I think anyone who has a dog who’s done the dog park thing will totally relate to that as well.
Mara Wells: Yep.
Neil Sattin: Yeah. Well, Mara, thank you so much for being here with us today on Relationship Alive. This was definitely outside of my wheelhouse to have a conversation like this versus going straight at someone’s relationship advice, but this is good stuff for all relationships. I’m really glad that you came on the show and for the joy of reading your book as well as the instructiveness of reading your book. I hope people check you out.
Mara Wells: [chuckle] Ah, thank you, Neil. Thank you. This was really fun. Thank you for inviting me on your show.
Neil Sattin: You’re welcome.