Capturing The Cowboy Heart: Cheyenne writer tests romance market, finds her niche

CHEYENNE– Joanne Kennedy’s life could belong to one of her heroines in her Western romances. The Cheyenne author has triumphed over the odds, found true love, and seems well on her way to the requisite happy ending of a romance novel.

The former bookstore manager fulfilled a long neglected dream last year and published at age 51 her first novel, Cowboy Trouble (Sourcebooks 2010). She then proved up to the romance genre’s relentless pace by turning out three more — One Fine Cowboy (2010), Cowboy Fever (2011), and Tall, Dark and Cowboy (due out next month). Her second work, One Fine Cowboy, beat out thousands of titles to be named a finalist for a RITA award, the romance world’s equivalent of an Oscar. Her books are in their second printing, and her latest, Tall, Dark and Cowboy, won a coveted spot on Wal-Mart’s bookshelves — a financial windfall.

Joanne Kennedy

“It’s rewarding,” says Kennedy. “I sit in my chair and let my eyes roll back into my head and go to another place. It’s really an escape.”

A willowy 5-foot-11 with hair the color of the season’s pumpkins, Kennedy also looks the part of a romantic protagonist. In 2002, after a streak of bad relationships and a failed 10-year marriage, she met Ken McCauley, a former fighter pilot. McCauley, 53, came into the Cheyenne Barnes & Noble, where she worked, to buy an Oprah Book Club selection.

McCauley, a commercial pilot now who volunteers for a youth-mentoring program, serves as a key inspiration for Kennedy’s cowboy Casanovas, despite rarely stepping into a stirrup.

“If he knew how much he’s in the books, he’d never talk to me again!”

Publishing World’s Dark Horse

Kennedy’s novels specialize in fiery, independent women who reluctantly fall for sensitive, salt-of-the-earth cowboys who struggle to express their feelings. The lovers’ tensions play out on the sage-strewn high plains of eastern Wyoming.

In a genre that measures “heat” — love-making details — on a scale from “sweet” to “sizzling,” Kennedy’s books falls somewhere in the middle around “spicy.” Passages don’t end with a demure “and then the lights dimmed.”

Romance fans’ appetites for this, as well as happy endings — an unbreakable rule in romance novels — help explain why romances are the publishing world’s little-known success story. Romance novels, unlike other genres, are seeing sales increase. Part of this is a Gone with the Wind phenomenon. During the Great Depression, Americans scooped up Margaret Mitchell’s southern romance, published in 1936, as an escape from grim reality. Today, with a deflated job market and an economy teetering in and out of recession, readers may be seeking the same relief.

Last year, romance novels enjoyed the largest share of the U.S. book market with $1.35 billion in sales, or 13.4 percent, according to Romance Writers of America and Simba Information. In comparison, the book world’s No. 2, religious or inspirational titles, saw $759 million in sales, and No. 3, mysteries, had $682 million.

Romance sales could rise to $1.36 billion this year.

Romance readers’ devouring of their guilty pleasures accounts for much of the success. The genre’s fans race through titles quicker on average than other genre-fans do.

“Romance readers read voraciously, and are considered to be ‘heavy’ book buyers,” says Elaine English, a Washington D.C. literary agent who represents several romance authors including Kennedy. “Romance has always been a strong seller in what’s called mass market fiction — the smaller format that sells at more locations than bookstores, like grocery, big box stores, etcetera.”

She also notes that contemporary romances, like the kind Kennedy writes, have been the most popular sub-genre. (Other sub-genres include historical, inspirational, and paranormal.)

E-books — or electronic books read on Kindles and other devices — are fueling sales too. Romances are the fastest-growing segment of that market, according to a 2010 New York Times report, which noted “the e-reader is the equivalent of the brown-paper wrapper.” Fans don’t need to endure withering glances from others at their covers with breathless scantily-clad lovers.

Bad Poetry, Tragic Short Stories

I meet Kennedy at the Cheyenne Barnes & Noble where she worked until leaving last January to write full-time. The store is meaningful to her. She met McCauley here, and she held her first novel’s launch party here.

Cowboy Fever

Her books — with hunky, brooding cowboys on their glossy covers — face out on a top shelf in the romance section, amid best-selling authors.

“They’ve been good to me,” Kennedy says, as we sit sunk into the store’s overstuffed armchairs, sipping lattes from the in-store Starbucks.

One hint that Kennedy’s life is not a simple happily-ever-after story is the neck brace she wears, hidden slightly beneath a colorful silk scarf. She underwent neck-fusion surgery this summer to correct a longtime problem with her fifth, sixth, and seventh vertebrae. She must wear the brace through recovery. In February, she also had jaw surgery to fix another neglected problem.

“I had kind of let myself fall apart,” she admits. Her ailments were exacerbated by her publishing pace.

Authoring commercial paperbacks was not always Kennedy’s plan.

As a teenager, she did sneak copies of her mom’s Victoria Holts and Mary Stewarts (“those gothic romances with women in diaphanous nightgowns and castles on the covers”). But she also read loftier tomes and nurtured loftier dreams of literary writing.

“I was much snootier when I was younger,” says Kennedy “I read literary fiction. I wrote really bad poetry for a really long time. Tragic short stories.”

Kennedy grew up in Williamstown, Mass., home to the elite private school Williams College. Her father was a scientist and worked for an electric company; her mother was a homemaker. The family moved to Bethlehem, Penn., — home to Lehigh University — when Kennedy was a teenager.

Kennedy enrolled in Lehigh and studied English, but dropped out short of her degree (“my deep dark secret”). She moved to a communal farm in Pennsylvania Dutch Country to live as a “latter day hippie.” She tended garden, raised chickens, and broke horses.

Good soil for a poet, but Kennedy’s literary career never took off.

“I wanted to write literary fiction, which is probably why I started writing so late. I didn’t have that in me — to be meaningful, profound. I’m not very profound. I have a pretty sunny worldview.”

She abandoned her dream and turned to bookselling instead, where she “could still be in the world of novels.” She worked for an independent store and then bought her own, Another Story, a used and rare bookstore in Allentown, Penn., and ran it for eight years in the ‘80s — “poking around in people’s attics … a fun thing.”

Kennedy witnessed the growth and domination of big box stores like Barnes & Noble. Rather than fight them, she joined them. She sold her shop and took a job at a Walden Books in Billings, Mont., in 1992. A relationship also had “gone south,” making the move attractive.

Kennedy quickly realized her “true home” was in the West.

“I remember driving out here and hitting South Dakota and the sky opens up, you know that Big Sky feeling, and the landscape is so completely different,” she says. “I just felt like I was home. I don’t think that I could go back. I feel very closed in when I go back East.”

After several moves among chain bookstores from Montana to Colorado, Kennedy landed in Cheyenne in 2001 as manager of the Barnes & Noble on Del Range Boulevard.

The Alchemy Of Just Typing

Kennedy’s health problems, in part, led her to step down from her job in 2005 and shift to a part-time bookselling position. She also began transcribing doctors’ medical reports on the side.

Cowboy Trouble

“I’d had enough of being up on my feet. I’d been in retail for 25 years. It takes it out of you.”

The transcribing was “drudgery,” but sitting at a typewriter turned out to be alchemy for Kennedy.

“I would just start typing something else,” she says. “It put me in the chair. And once I was in the chair, other things started coming. I started Cowboy Trouble.”

The manuscript began as a mystery; Kennedy had no intention of writing a romance.

That same year, a friend invited Kennedy to go to the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Conference in Denver, where agents and authors teach workshops and critique amateurs’ work.

The ‘Chicken Lady’

Those early pages were praised by a prickly agent who otherwise “was tearing people apart.”

The first paragraphs, which remain the start to Cowboy Trouble, read:

A chicken will never break your heart.

Not that you can’t love a chicken. There are some people in this world who can love just about anything.

But a chicken will never love you back. When you look deeply into their beady little eyes, there’s not a lot of warmth there — just avarice for worms and bugs and, if it’s a rooster, a lot of suppressed anger and sexual frustration.

“She loved it,” Kennedy says. “There were a lot of other people in the room, and for the remainder of the conference people would say, ‘Oh, it’s the chicken lady,’ People were stopping me in the restaurant to say, ‘I liked your chicken thing.’

“I had gone to the conference with a friend just to go for fun. And all of a sudden: ‘I could actually do this. I could actually do it for a living.’ It was what I’d always wanted. From then on it was, ‘I am going to do this.’”

Ninety rejections from agents, which Kennedy compiled in a “trophy case,” didn’t deflate her.

“It’s all in how you look at it,” she says. “When you look at what an agent does, they don’t get paid until they sell your book. It’s not that your book has to be good enough, they have to love it and be so committed to it.”

Her bookselling background also shored her up. “It’s like shopping for a book. There are ones you would pick to read. But which would you read over and over and make a part of your life?”

She did notice that many rejection letters called her mystery “too romancy.” Others pooh-poohed cowboys as yesterday’s news.

Kennedy penned a new manuscript, a paranormal romance, Hell’s Angel. (Paranormals include fantasy elements like vampires, angels, or other worlds.) Hers centers around a woman in purgatory who is offered a deal from the devil to go free if she will return to high school and confront past boyfriends.

The manuscript captivated literary agent Elaine English.

“I fell in love instantly with Joanne’s humor, her writing style, and with her wonderful heroine,” English says. “Her heroines are always strong, independent women who are quite competent and able to make a life for themselves on their own. The guys just make a lively and hunky addition.”

English couldn’t sell Hell’s Angel, but she did hear from Editor Deb Werksman at Sourcebooks who was looking for Western romances.

“Elaine called me,” remembers Kennedy, “and said, ‘You live in Wyoming, did you tell me you’d written something Western?”

Kennedy sent in Cowboy Trouble. Sourcebooks wanted it but under the condition that Kennedy re-write it as a romance and add in the male’s perspective. In addition, they asked, Could she write two romances a year?

“At that point, it’s so challenging getting published, I would have said ‘Yes’ to anything,” says Kennedy.

Kennedy’s Happily Ever After

Kennedy’s office is in the attic of the brick home she shares with McCauley on a leafy avenue in downtown Cheyenne. Not a horse trailer or hay bale in sight. On a bulletin board in the office she’s tacked photos of Wyoming ranch scenes. Her slanted ceiling is covered with sticky notes in a labyrinth pattern that follows the arcs and scenes of her novels.

This year, she will promote Tall, Dark and Cowboy, edit Cowboy Crazy, and begin work on her next installment about a plein air painter who visits a Wyoming dude ranch.

Tall, Dark and Cowboy

“I’m trying to get it to where I can slide in a third [book each year],” says Kennedy, adjusting her neck brace. “I’d really like to do some other things, try something else.”

From her years in bookselling, she’s keenly aware of books’ shelf-lives.

“You really have 90 days,” she says. “When a book comes out, it’s got about three months on the shelves. If it hasn’t done well, it’s gone. You’ve got to make it when you can. You really feel that lull in between, especially with the Internet. You can feel if you’re engaging with people or not. By the time you hit that lull, something else comes along.”

When the conversation turns to McCauley, Kennedy glows.

Recalling her first impression makes her laugh. “Here’s this cute guy, and he’s buying all these sensitive books.”

But the timing was off. Kennedy had just left a failed marriage. McCauley, who could pass for tall, dark, and handsome, had recently been divorced. (Kennedy has no children. McCauley has two grown children and two grandchildren.)

“It was the last thing in the world I wanted. I had sworn off men. It was the same for him.”

But like a satisfying romance, love won out.

Over lunch with the couple at the Albany in downtown Cheyenne, McCauley compliments Kennedy on her tenacity to publish. “In my field, you pass your physical and you have a job. I can’t believe how much she went through.”

Joanne Kennedy signing copies of Cowboy Trouble

He looks at her. “I always knew you’d do it.”

Kennedy praises McCauley’s altruism. Last year, he ran unsuccessfully as a Democrat for a Wyoming house seat in Cheyenne’s District 8 and walked door-to-door, listening to voters for hours in their homes.

When a teen in the mentoring program he volunteers for expressed interest in flying, McCauley took him under his wing and eventually “informally adopted” Brian, the son of a single-dad. Brian lived with Kennedy and McCauley through his high school years.

The couple, who keep a framed photo of Brian in their house, proudly announce he will graduate from the U.S. Air Force Academy this year.

Kennedy does believe in happy endings.

“I do,” she says. “I believe in love at first sight, happily-ever-after. It’s funny that it’s taken a long time to get there myself, but I really do believe in that.”

(Banner photo taken by A. Scott McCauley)

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Previously in the WyoFile Writer’s Series: Sex, Sunsets and Sandlin

Susan Gray Gose is a freelance writer who lives in Lander with her husband Ben and two children, Lily and Gage. She has been managing editor of the Lander Journal, a correspondent for People magazine, an assistant editor for The Chronicle of Philanthropy, and a reporter for The News & Observer (N.C.) She also writes fiction.

Susan Gray Gose is a freelance writer who lives in Lander with her husband and two children. She has been managing editor of the Lander Journal, a correspondent for People magazine, an assistant editor...

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