Thursday, March 20, 2008

Thursday Talk Time : : Jane Donnelly

This Thursday Pink Heart Society columnist, Anne McAllister, looks back on one of Harlequin's best-loved authors, Jane Donnelly.

Just as every published author has her own "call story," I'm pretty sure that every author can tell you about a handful of books or authors who have inspired them, whose books remain on their keeper shelves long after that first -- or even tenth -- reading, and who can say with absolute sincerity, "That's who I want to be when I grow up."

For me that author is Jane Donnelly.

When I first began reading romance back in 1980 (living a sheltered 'literary' sort of existence until then, with the notable exception of having discovered Georgette Heyer and having felt enormous relief at not simply being stuck reading Jane Austen over and over and over for a good 'relationship' book), I discovered the books of Jane Donnelly.

The first one I read, published in 1979, was Behind a Closed Door. And the experience was transforming.

I loved her style. I loved her insights. I loved her spare, elegant prose. Even more I loved her very restrained but no less emotional characters.

Janna, the heroine, was EveryGirl (or EveryWoman, but maybe just on the cusp). She was the sort of regular person that readers (like me) could immediately identify with. She had friends, she had a animals, she had an annoyingly user-sort of boyfriend of the type we've all known. And she had prejudices based on things she thought were true. It was easy to identify with Janna.

And then in walked Peter Craig.

He was, to me, the perfect Alpha hero. A very self-contained, restrained, buttoned-down, compartmentalized, successful man. And for all that Peter never gave anything away, something electric arced between the two of them right from the start.

Janna saw Peter as ruthless, a man who didn't suffer fools gladly. And, let's face it, he was. Yet over the course of the book, she learned there was much more to him than she imagined.

But the change wasn't just on Janna's part. Just by being who she was -- warm and accepting and giving -- she had a hand in humanizing Peter Craig. By being herself, wholly unintentionally, she got inside a very well-defended exterior, and made this strong, contained man recognize -- in her -- his other half.

At the end she says, 'I thought . . .that you could shut me out. Well, you can, can't you? You can close doors in your mind. You told me." And Peter, as desperate as he's ever been, says, "Not on you. . . On everything but you."

My breath caught because I could absolutely feel, to the depths of my being, the pain with which he managed those telling words -- and the joy Janna felt on hearing them. And I was crying at the end when I read, 'And those who said he was not a gentle man did not know him at all.'
Because that's what Jane Donnelly did to me in virtually every book of hers that I read -- she touched the emotional core.

She challenged her characters, forced them into situations they would much rather have avoided, and, in doing so, made them confront their needs and their weaknesses -- and the person who could bring out the best in them.

Again and again she distilled the essence of the relationship, and brought two people together who were meant to be together. They completed each other, were halves of the same soul.

The more I read of Jane Donnelly's back list -- and as I waited less than patiently for her books as she wrote them -- I really really really wanted to be Jane Donnelly when I grew up. Never mind that I was already past 30!

And so I began to write.

And eventually I had a book accepted. And about the time my first book was published, I went to London where Mills & Boon's offices were then.

The editorial director, Frances Whitehead, invited me into her office for a chat. She might have considered it a chat. I thought of it more like being invited to the Inquisition.

But Frances was lovely, especially when she asked me, "Who's your favorite M&B author?" and laughed delightedly when I said, "Jane Donnelly."

"Ah yes," Frances said. "You'd be amazed how many authors say that. She's an author's author, I think."

Maybe. But she's far more than that.

To me she is the perfect role model. Her work resonates with me. Her people are people I want to know. The relationships she wrote about are similar to ones that I would like to write about myself.

Not only that, but I had the pleasure of meeting her on two occasions and even when I, tongue-tied, expressed my admiration, she was so generous and self-effacing and kind that I even more wanted to grow up to be like her.

I was telling my friend Jenny Haddon, who writes for Harlequin Mills & Boon as Sophie Weston, that I was going to write this because I know Jenny shares my admiration for Jane.

And Jenny wrote back and said, "Jane Donnelly was the first HMB author I really loved. She had a distinctive style and her characters went to real emotional depths before they got their happy ending. The sexual tension sizzled and she was not afraid of dark stuff either: betrayal, bereavement, extreme misjudgement. In one of her best, Flash Point, the hero is a barrister who thinks the heroine manipulated his client into becoming a thief, thereby and destroying his life.

"She was particularly good at making the heroine's back story, often one of pain and secrets, throw the present action into relief. For instance, there is a scene in Moon Lady where the heroine is powering up and down the hero's swimming pool to block out her demons, and when she's tired he helps her out of the pool. 'She was light headed. She had swum too fast. A man had died on Tuesday but he had not been Prudence Cormack's father. Prudence Cormack had no roots, and if the past wasn't real, how could she be sure of the present? Maybe all her friends were shadows, and her cottage and her shop. and there was nothing anywhere that would endure. She put her hands flat on Jake's chest and it was solid as a rock; he was no shadow. She could feel his slow steady heartbeats against her cold fingertips, and she was asking to be kept alive when she whispered huskily, 'Hold me. please. Please, oh, please, love me!'

"I don't think I ever saw the point of the continuous present tense until I read Jane Donnelly! But it is her brave, complex heroines and enigmatic heroes that stay with me, years after I first read them."


Whatever else I can say about Jane Donnelly would be better said by simply advising you to read her books. They will speak more powerfully than anything about what a wonderful insightful writer -- and person -- she was.

Who are your favorites? The keeper few that you would rescue from a burning building and won't lend to anyone -- not even your best friend?

Anne still re-reads her collection of Jane Donnelly books every year. They still teach her things, and still give her standards to strive for. You can read her latest book One-Night Love Child, from Harlequin Presents in March and Mills & Boon Modern in April.

Stop by her blog where she will be talking about several of Jane Donnelly's best heroes. If you have a favorite, she'd be delighted to hear. Hers are Peter Craig, obviously, Connor Lammas from Dark Pursuer, and Luke Hannay from Collision Course.


  1. I was lucky enough to meet Jane Donnelly just once at an early AMBA lunch. She was lively, charming and entertaining. It was one of those 'You're . . .!!!!' moments. Meeting M&B royalty. I was so glad I got the chance to talk to her in person. One book of hers that I particularly remember was Face The Tiger.

    Keepers? Sara Craven always comes to mind. I've blogged here about Fugitive Wife and Comparative Strangers. I would run back into that fire for my Michelle Reid books, specially Gold Ring of Betrayal and Price of a Bride.

    And then of course there's the large collection of books by someone called Anne McAllister . . .

  2. Ah, yes, Sara Craven. I remember one called HIGH TIDE AT MIDNIGHT (I think) that was gorgeous. And I think right up there with Jane's BEHIND A CLOSED DOOR is Robyn Donald's SUMMER AT AWAKOPU -- another of those books I don't let out of my office!

  3. Anne, what a wonderful post. I'd forgotten (wicked me!) just how much I loved Jane Donnelly's books. I still remember the first book of hers I read - I read it over and over in my late teens because I couldn't find another romance that had the resonance and the depth she brought to it. And the conflicts were genuine and truly heartwrenching. I can't remember the name of this but the heroine was the daughter of a famous author who basically used her as a dogsbody and then she fell in love with the totally unsuitable alpha hero who tried to get her away from good old dad. I think the hero might have been a new writer on the scene too and even just out of prison (see what I mean about piling on the emotional pain?) - very much old lion versus new lion.

    That extract you put up just gave me goosebumps - I kept all my favourite Mills and Boons in a box under the bed (mainly Anne Mather!) when I was a teenager and my mother got keen on the cleaning and threw them out one day after I'd moved out of home. Was a sore point for years, as you can imagine!

    Actually, one of Jenny Haddon's/Sophia Weston's M&Bs is one of the best I've ever read - it's called The Bedroom Assignment and it's absolutely fantastic. It's got that emotional truth that you talk about in the JD post.

    Another writer I really liked was Vanessa James. She wrote really textured, complex stories with incredible emotional punch.

  4. Hi Anna,
    I have some Anne Mathers on my shelves, too. Come Running was a special favorite.

    And of course I have a lot of Jenny/Sophie's as well. I thumbed through The Bedroom Assignment just the other day and reminisced. I don't know if I've read Vanessa James, but I'll have a look through my boxes and see if I have any. If not, I can probably find some at my local used bookstore -- unless she's still writing, in which case I can wait for a new one!

  5. I've never read a Jane Donnelly. Seems I've got a treat in store because, naturally, I've indulged my amazon habit.

    Mind, I came to M&B late. I read my first one in 2001. That was Jessica Hart's 'The Convenient Fiance'. Safe to say that book changed my life's course. :)

  6. Natasha,

    Well, you started out with a good one if you began with Jessica Hart! I'm glad you've gone back to Amazon and picked up some JD books. I hope you enjoy them. There is no one quite like her. She had a very distinct voice and a deep complex emotional landscape out of which she wrote.

  7. You've made me want to read a Jane Donnelly book now, Anne! My keeper books would be ones I have at home written by Rosamund Pilcher and Edna O'Brien.


  8. Anne, I'm coming in late here but thanks so much for your post. Like Anna, I'd forgotten what a wonderful writer Jane Donnelly was and how much I loved her books. Ooh, and I got the shivers too when I read this line:

    "And those who said he was not a gentle man did not know him at all."

    What a pefect ending!

    One of my other favourite authors back then was Violet Winspear. A couple of months ago I bought a collection of her romances on eBay and as soon as I get time, I'm going to sit and read them again. I particularly remember The Honey is Bitter and am so looking forward to re-reading it.

    I loved Anne Mather's books too. And Sara Craven. Oh heck, I loved all the Mills and Boons books back then. Still do. They were such a treat.

  9. I've never read a Jane Donnelly but must now! Those quotes were absoute gems. Gave me goosebumps! Thanks Anne!!! (and Jenny!!!)

  10. Lynette, I love Rosamund Pilcher books. I read all the ones our library had when I was young, and when they started re-releasing them in paperback in the 80s I bought a slew of them. I'm not familiar with Edna O'Brien. I'll check her out. Thanks!

    Maxine, there were lots of great strong writers in the 'old days' weren't there? Violet Winspear was indeed one of the strong strong voices. Sandra Marton wrote a lovely blog about her a few months ago, I believe. And yes, Sara Craven, Anne Mather, Charlotte Lamb, Mary Burchell, Essie Summers and Robyn Donald, among others, were all fantastic.

    Ah, Ally, I hope you enjoy JD's books. She imbues such emotion in her characters, but on the surface it's all understated. Very much the 'still water runs deep' sort of book. Sit down and rock that baby girl and read books!

  11. Oh, and I did finally post my Jane Donnelly's heroes piece on my own blog. She had to make way yesterday for Christian Bale and Johnny Depp!

    I'm sure she understood!