|The Romance Readers' Book Club|
Julie L. Cannon
Bored with her sheltered life in Rigby, Georgia, fifteen-year-old Tammi Lynn Elco senses a cure for her restlessness when she acquires a stack of forbidden romance novels. Eluding the watchful eye of her Granny Elco, Tammi forms a secret book club with two girlfriends and her eccentric Aunt Minna, reading about weak-in-the-knees passion and sharing their own stories of love and heartache.
When Rigby is seized in a devastating drought, local preachers are quick to proclaim sin as the reason, forcing Tammi to come to terms with her turbulent feelings and the strict expectations of the community. The Romance Reader’s Club is a heartfelt coming-of-age tale written with true Southern flair.
Julie L. Cannon lives in Watkinsville, Georgia. She is the author of three previous novels: Truelove & Homegrown Tomatoes, ’Mater Biscuit, and Those Pearly Gates. Visit her website at juliecannon.info.
Q. Where did you get the inspiration for your characters? Which character is your favorite? Which of them do you best identify with?
A. At their conception, my characters are people I know or know of, but very quickly they become their own people. This is good because if they don’t branch out and do their own thing, I get stymied by what I think these “real” people would do in a particular situation.
My favorite character? That’s like asking me to pick between my three children! My characters become very real to me and I love each one in different ways. I love even old acidic and rigid Granny. I love them especially for their weaknesses and flaws, for their tender spots and their yearnings. They’re all, like each of us, on a journey, changing from one thing to another, either physically, like Tammi, or spiritually and emotionally, like Granny, LaDonna, Parks, and also Tammi. Pepaw is probably my most endearing character in this novel. He’s generous and full of compassion, secure in his knowledge of the secret of this life, and has great faith that “everything’s gonna be alright” in the end. Orr has his own set of angst, though he is loveable for his childlike spirit. Minna is the most fun, though she has her own set of hang-ups.
The character I best identify with is Tammi Lynn Elco. Probably because I grew up in a very sheltered, straight-laced family (which is not a terrible thing, though it felt like it sometimes when I was growing up). My entertainment consisted of G-rated books, Hallmark movies, and TV shows like Walton’s Mountain, Little House on the Prairie, and Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. In high school, a friend introduced me to the Victoria Holt novels, which are fairly mild in terms of romances, but then she urged me to read Forever Amber, which was much racier. I was mesmerized by the passion, the unbridled sensual life of the main character, Amber. It was magnetic, gripping, and I fell headlong into the story, scarcely able to function in this world until I reached the final word. More worldly books, then movies, followed, and I’m sure my mother would not have approved of these things, though I don’t remember hiding them from her. I never realized how deceptive some of the characters and the romance scenes in the books were - unattainable heights of passion and flawless studs - until I got out there and met some real men.
Q. Tammi wrestles between her own desires and her Granny’s beliefs. Have you had personal experience with this kind of struggle?
A. Yes. I think anyone raised with a strong code of ethical convictions, whether it has a spiritual basis or not, gets to a point where they question their own motives and actions, holding them up to what they were taught. I believe you have to do this, too, and come to your own decision, to have any sort of personal responsibility, and to claim any kind of spiritual faith as your own, especially for it to be a vital, living force. You cannot inherit faith. I know I realized the books I began reading in high school would not exactly get a stamp of approval from my church, so when Tammi struggles with the sensual, temporal element of these romance novels, especially when Reverend Goodlow admonishes the congregation to set their minds on eternal treasures and beware the lusts of the flesh, and she wonders if it’s her sin that’s causing Rigby’s drought, I think on some level, I was looking back and questioning a lot of my own behavior, from books I read to relationships I was in, particularly when I was off at college in the 1980's.
There’s that rebellious part inside me that I still struggle with. There’s also a fierce pride—I hate to be told what to do, what not to do, but I realize that human behavior will float aimlessly along on a lake of changing circumstances unless it is attached to strong ethical convictions.
Q. Did you know all along that Granny would have a secret, or did you discover it along the way?
A. In the initial planning stages where I was plotting and outlining the novel, I didn’t know about Granny’s dark secret sin. But I’m always curious about the motives of really rigid, judgmental, uptight, religious people (notice I didn’t say spiritual or Christian), and I wonder what they struggle with, what they’re perhaps hiding, that makes them act that way. Granny needed to change, to have a journey and a realization, to become more compassionate and not so judgmental, and so I had to give her a monumental flaw. At the beginning of the book, she doesn’t have a true relationship with God. She’s full of hypocritical religiosity, with none of God’s grace and mercy. It was funny, after I decided on the secret sin, Granny’s character took off on its own, and her “religiosity” became a sub-plot I modeled after Saul’s journey to Paul in the Bible, and it’s not until the end of the novel when she’s truly redeemed. (Of course, the reader will probably pardon her when they see what a rough childhood she endured.) Q. What are your personal feelings about romance novels?
A. I’m kind of scared to answer this question. A lot of romance writers are very sensitive about the way their books are portrayed and I totally understand. My agent sees The Romance Readers’ Book Club as a loving tribute to romance novels, but I’m concerned some might see my response is stereotypical.
There are so many different types of romance novels that I couldn’t make a blanket statement about the genre even if I wanted to. There are para-normal romances, alternative romances, historical romances.... the list goes on. Some are innocent fluff, some even labeled Christian. And then there are the hard-core, trashy romances which are little more than women’s pornography - titillating, appealing to that purely sensual side. It’s these that Tammi has found at Miz Terhune’s trailer.
I believe, for many women, romance novels are addictive and sometimes I think they set us up to believe in a fantasy-love- relationship that is unattainable, filling our heads with the very stuff that fairytales are made of. In fact, the idea for this novel came to me when I was at a yardsale one day and saw a mountain of paperback romance novels for a nickel a piece. I wondered to myself, ‘What if some girl, a young teen, bought them and formed her notion of how love and marriage and life is supposed to be from them? What if she’s been really sheltered? Wouldn’t these shock her? How would they affect her future relationships?’
The romance novels open a Pandora’s Box of passion and guilt for Tammi. The heart of the story lies in the addictive and titillating force of the hard-core, smutty romance novel, which I believe is deceptive, and harmful.
Q. What do you think Tammi should decide to do at the end of the book?
A. Originally I had Tammi hesitating a bit, but finally saying “Yes” to Leon, her Magnificent Obsession. She goes on to say that “I guess I can be a preacher’s wife and stay in podunk Rigby, Georgia, long as I have time between leading Bible studies and tending to the sick to write my own romance novel about our relationship,” and he answers, “Okay, as long as it’s not one of the trashy ones.” But my editor said, “No! She can’t marry. She’s way too young!” So, I let it be more ambiguous at the end.
But even though I originally wrote it like that, I do think it’s true that at 16 Tammi’s much too young to make a commitment. I got married at 25, and looking back, I think I was too young. I still am, at 45. But we’ve remained together, largely because my husband is so full of grace. He turns a blind, then forgiving eye to most of my faults. I’d have left me a long, long time ago. Honestly.
We all change a ton as we age - I am definitely no longer the same person I was at 16, or at 25, or even at 40. I don’t think Tammi, especially with her bent toward wanderlust, would be happy married to a preacher and living in Rigby, Georgia. She’s never liked domestic stuff and I don’t know if Leon can satisfy her merciless quest for passion. He’s very committed to eternal things, to winning souls.
Q. Religion plays a major role in the book. Does this come from experiences in your own life?
A. If you mean is any of this novel autobiographical, I would have to say yes. But, I prefer the word “spirituality” instead of religion in that statement, or perhaps even better, “a relationship with God”. I don’t like the word religion. Granny is a legalistic, fire-and-brimstone kind of religious person, but without any of the grace, compassion, and humility of a true believer.
I believe there’s really no way to separate the spiritual/eternal part of a person from the physical and temporal. The filter we view the world through, that our thoughts come through, is necessarily colored by our spiritual views. One thing I think is funny is that people tend to view the sexual passionate part of life and the spiritual life as mutually exclusive. Who do you think invented passion (desires of the flesh) and sex? My thoughts were to write a thought-provoking multi-layered tale weaving together the sensual and the temporal. Like a lot of us, I am always struggling with the devil on one shoulder and the angel on the other, and writing about this particular struggle of Tammi’s brought home to me about how what you read can really affect you (the same could be said of TV shows or movies). Words are powerful. They take on a life of their own, and Tammi’s addiction to romance novels turns out to be a self-propelling thing - like a dynamo.
Desire became a rapacious thing and took on a life of its own for Tammi. This obsession with lust wasn’t really conscious on her part, she never really considered any consequences beyond Granny finding out about the romance novels and punishing her, but even if she had known how dissatisfied and restless the books would make her, I don’t think she wouldn’t have denied herself them. She had to go through all this to come to a realization of what true love is. I don’t think I’d go back and change much of my own journey. Without the mistakes I made I would not be the person I am now. I never would have grasped a lot of the truths I have without going through the pain. I would not know what grace is.
With that in mind I try to show Tammi as a pilgrim on a journey. Under the influence of the steamy stories, she’s yearning, searching for mind-boggling passion as I was. There is a hunger at her core for sexual fulfillment, but some of her behavior is wounding. In an earlier version of the novel, which turned out to be 200,000 words too long, I had her sink down under an even more merciless quest for passion, pursuing a string of fleeting sexual thrills with the same empty loneliness after each one. She was seeking the answer to the hunger of life in one relationship after another with men, but she woke up one morning, lying in bed with a man she’d met the night before, and she felt the most intense loneliness she’d ever experienced. In the published version, there is a scene where Tammi has gone so far she’s lost the warm assurance of God’s presence, His blessing, and she feels alone in a vast world, no mystic Hand to guide her. The connected Tammi is gone.
The drought in Rigby, Georgia, is a spiritual symbol - of Tammi, and Granny, too, being without the refreshing presence of God. Granny’s heart is dry, and Rigby sees no relief until after she repents of her secret sin. I’ve had spiritual droughts in my life, and when my heart is dry, I can find true refreshment and spiritual ecstasy only when I seek God’s face, who “will come to us like the showers, like the spring rains that water the earth.”
- The book focuses on a secret club created by the main character. Did you ever have a club? What was it called and what was its purpose? Which member of the Romance Reader’s Book Club do you most identify with and why?
- How do you feel about romance novels? Should girls Tammi’s age be allowed to read them? What would you name a romance novel about your own life?
- In the book, Tammi turns to romance novels and chores when she needs to keep busy. What do you do when there is something on your mind?
- Toward the end of the book, we find out that Granny was stealing from people in addition to giving them bad deals. Were you surprised by this? What do you think of the consequences of her actions?
- Tammi thinks that her parents’ accident is her fault. Have you ever struggled with guilt over something you couldn’t control?
- Aunt Minna encourages and participates in the book club. What do you think of her role in the story? Do you agree with the advice she gives to the girls? Why or why not?
- The ending of the book left Tammi’s future up in the air. What do you think she should do and why? What would you do?
- What do you think of the way men and women are portrayed in the book? Consider their roles in relation to the club’s weekly discussion topics.
- Tammi is often made fun of at school for the way she dresses and acts. Do you think the opinions of her classmates affect her actions? When you were in high school, how did you dress or act that was embarrassing?
- In what ways did Tammi change during the course of the book? In what ways do you think she still needs to change?
- At the very end of the book, Leon tells Tammi that he loves her. Were you surprised by this declaration? Do you think Tammi was prepared for his proposal? What do you think would have happened if he had accepted her advances from the beginning?