That RWA LTA Speech (News from Suz)
News from Suz Brockmann www.SuzanneBrockmann.com July 21, 2018, Denver, Colorado
There's been a bit of buzz about my RWA LTA acceptance speech...
And I'd hoped the video would be up so you could watch it, but I think that takes a bit of time to do (and the gang over at RWA are a little busy with the rest of the giant conference), so I thought I'd zap you a quick e-newsletter with the contents of my speech.
(And also remind you that the big-ass RWA group book signing in support of literacy programs is TODAY, Saturday, July 21st from 3 to 5 pm at the Sheraton hotel in downtown Denver! I'll be there! Come say hello!!)
But... this past Thursday night, I was given the incredible honor of receiving the Romance Writers of America Nora Roberts Lifetime Achievement Award, and was given a bit of time to make (ahem) a speech.
I had a few things to say.
But first, my son, Jason T. Gaffney, took the stage and gave me an incredible intro. (There was a slideshow with pictures on the big screen. I'll figure out a way to post them later when I have more time!!)
Jason: Before she was a writer, my mom was a musician. She sang in coffeehouses and subway stations, she fronted a rock band, and directed an acappella group.
Since 1993, (I was eight!) she’s written fifty-seven novels, fourteen short stories, and three screenplays. She edits a line of own-voices romance called Suzanne Brockmann Presents.She co-wrote and directed an off-Broadway play, and produced four indie movies.
Here’s the trailer for her latest, a rom-com called ANALYSIS PARALYSIS
(We showed our trailer for AP here, on the big screens! So cool! You can watch it on vimeo here:
ANALYSIS PARALYSIS was Kickstarted with the generous support of the romance community. It’ll be screening at LGBTQ film festivals and streaming on-line in the near future. In September, we’re filming our nextmovie, a rom-com titled OUT OF BODY—screenplay and novelization both written by my mom.
But okay, we’re here to talk about books. In romance publishing, my mom is known best for her LGBTQ activism—and for her books about hunky Navy SEALs.
Mom’s fascination with SEALs started in 1995 with PRINCE JOE and her Tall, Dark & Dangerouscategory romance series, which exploded her career in more ways than one.
In 1998, HARVARD’S EDUCATION was Silhouette Intimate Moments book number 884, but only the secondbook in that line with a heroine and hero who were African American. Mom fought for that book, pushing against institutional racism. It opened her eyes to her own privilege, and she vowed to use it to make romance more inclusive.
In 2000, Mom launched her second, mainstreamSEAL series with THE UNSUNG HERO, voted RWA’s favorite book of that year. Her Troubleshooters series is set in an inclusive America, where diversity is celebrated and honored.
But early 2001 was the year that her most beloved character—out, gay FBI agent Jules Cassidy—first walked onto the pages of THE DEFIANT HERO, and into the heart of Romancelandia.
Jules was the FBI partner of Alyssa Locke, whose romance with Navy SEAL Sam Starrett played out in real time over the course of five books, before they finally won their HEA in 2003’s GONE TOO FAR
But Jules’s relationship with Sam was just as vital to this series. Sam began his journey a hot mess—ignorantly homophobic. But over time, Sam got to know Jules as a kick-ass, capable, smart, funny, highly-skilled, heroic man.
And as Sam began to think of Jules as one of his dearest and most trusted friends, Mom’s readers did, too.
In 2004, in HOT TARGET, Mom gave Jules his own romantic subplot and story-arc, in which he meets his future Mr. Right—Hollywood movie star, Robin Chadwick.
At the time, RT had a “no gay books” policy in place. Neither my mom, nor her incredibly supportive editor, Shauna Summers, nor anyone else at Ballantine Books knew if HOT TARGET would be accepted by reviewers—or just flatly ignored.
But they all wereconvincedthat romance readers were ready for Jules Cassidy to fall in love.
And they were right—HOT TARGET was Border’s best-selling hardcover romance of the year. (Remember Borders...?)
HOT TARGET was also the book where my mother—with my approval—publically, capital-O-outed me in a poetically heartfelt two-page dedication, written in the form of a letter.
“To my fabulous son, Jason:
Even as a tiny child, your smile could outshine the sun...”
She wrote about how I’d always been completely myself, from a very young age, and the way she’d always supported and celebrated what she called “Jason being Jason.”
But then she wrote: “Years later, when you were fifteen, you still wanted me to tuck you in at night. So I’d stand by your bunk bed and we’d talk a bit about the day. I’d also gather up your dirty clothes...
She wrote: “One night, you took a deep breath and said to me, “Mom, I think I’m gay.”
She wrote: “I know that,” I told you, giving you a hug and a kiss. “I love you. I’ll always love you. Where did you put your dirty socks?”
My mom and I both believed that by sharing this story, we were giving Mom’s readers a recipe for how they might respond if one of theirkids approached them and said, “Mom, I’m gay.”
Love is love is love is love.
I know it’s time to get my mother up here to accept her award, but I have one last thing to tell you:
She wrote ALL THROUGH THE NIGHT—the book where Jules and Robin get legally married in Boston—and gave all of her earnings—advances, sub-rights, royalties in perpetuity—well over a quarter of a million dollars by now—to MassEquality, to help win equal marriage rights in Massachusetts—rights that then spread across this entire nation.
And yeah, that’s our mother-son dance from my wedding to my amazing husband Matt, in March of 2016. Mom wanted you to see this—she considers THIS her ultimate lifetime achievement.
Okay. Then it was my turn. (Ahem.)
I took the stage (wearing my Dress. I have one dress, and it's the same one I wore to Jason's wedding. So it's a Very Special Dress). I waited until Jason had returned to our table in the front, and I turned to him and said:
In December 1992, when you were seven years old, when things were financially dire for our family, I sold my very first romance novel, and I had my first phone call with my first editor of my very first published book. And it was so weird and cool. As we went down her list of revisions, she said, “Oh! You can’t use penis.”
I said, “I’m sorry, what...?”
She clarified. “You can’t use the word penis. You have to call it something else.”
See, I’d yet to discover RWA, and hadn’t been sent the memo about the 1992-appropriate euphemisms for penis. In fact, this editor asked me, later in that same conversation, “Will you be going to RWA?”
And I said, “I’m sorry, what...?”
She told me about the national conference, and suggested that I join.
But it was then, between our discussion of penis and RWA that she gave me a revision note that broke my heart.
Because even though it was gonna be another eight years before you said, “Hey, Mom, I’m gay,” I saw you clearly, Jason, and I knew. You were like that Pink song. Fuckin’ perfect.
So when my first editor of my first published romance novel told me that I’d have to change my beloved small-town sheriff because he couldn’t appear in my book just casually, openly gay as I’d written him, I laughed. This was a secondary character...
But she wasn’t laughing, so this time, I said: “I’m sorry, WHAT...?”
She told me that traditional romance readers were very conservative and they did not want to read books that included even the briefest mention of gay people. She said, “You have to make the sheriff straight.”
I said, “You can’t be serious. It’s 1992. The real world is filled with gay people.”
One of them—you were playing with your sister in your bedroom, down the hall.
I argued. How were readers ever going to expand their worldview if they didn’t get to meet characters like my adorable gay sheriff...?
But this was non-negotiable. “We’ll get letters,” she said. I remember that so clearly. She said, “Readers will be offended, and they’ll write angry letters.”
I stood there, thinking, This woman absolutely believes that romance readers will be offended by my son’s existence.
I stood there, thinking about you, Jason, thinking, If I make this change, you will never see your reflection in my first book. At the time you were too young to read a romance novel—But I wanted you to read it, someday, and see that little glimmer of a reflection. I wanted you to know that, right from the very start of my romance career, there was always room in my world for you.
I stood there, faced with the choice of doing what was right—pulling that book and finding a different publisher, or... feeding you.
As my silence dragged on, the editor said, “Other publishers won’t let the sheriff be gay, either. That’s just the way it is.”
And that was it. My radioactive spider bite. My origin story.
Because feed you, my child, I would, but I also vowed, in that moment, that I would make room for you in the romance genre. Because I would not write books set in a world where gay people—where you—were rendered invisible, where you were erased “because that’s just the way it was.”
It was not by accident that many of my earlier books have a hero or heroine who happens to have a gay brother. He doesn’t appear in the book, can’t offend anybody, he’s only mentioned in passing, but he’s gay and he’s loved. Can I get away with that? I can? Good. Next book, I’ll push harder.
And I pushed and pushed, and eight years later, with the help and support of my brilliant long-time editor Shauna Summers, my most popular character—my out, gay FBI agent, Jules Cassidy—walked onto the pages of The Defiant Hero.
It was shortly after that, Jace, that together with your dad, we got actively involved in the fight for marriage equality.
And yes, RWA, that was my real lifetime achievement. I have danced at my son’s legal wedding to his amazing and wonderful Mr. Right.
Some of you have no idea how impossible a dream that might have seemed back in 1992, when I was told to erase the gay sheriff from my first published romance. The obstacles we faced seemed insurmountable.
RWA, you were an obstacle. In 2008, I was asked to MC the Rita Awards in San Francisco and I was thrilled.
My book, All Through the Night, had recently come out—a ground-breaking mainstream, New York Times hardcover best-selling romance about two gay men celebrating their love by getting legally married.
My crazy, inclusive, liberal, hopeful, love-embracing brain took RWA’s invitation as approval and acknowledgement that love is love is love.
But not so fast there, you.
Early on, I’d asked if there’d be time for me to speak briefly—just a few personal words at the start of the ceremony...?
“Of course,” I was told.
But at the rehearsal in San Francisco, I was asked to “practice” reading the statement I’d prepared. That seemed a little strange, but okay, I had it with me, so I did.
It was a short, joyful comment about California being one of a very few places in the US, at that time, that recognized Jules and Robin’s marriage.
I was stunned when I was informed that I could not say that. I was told that the issue was divisive and some RWA members would be offended.
Imagine being invited to speak at an RWA event and then being told you could not talk about your most recent hardcover bestselling romance novel or the marriage of your all-time most popular characters, because some members would be offended.
I should’ve walked out. I regret not walking out.
I should’ve rocked the living fuck out of that boat. Instead, I was nice, instead I went along, and I let Jules and Robin and all that we’d achieved, be erased.
But right here and right now, I’m reclaiming my time.
Because that, my second radioactive spider bite, changed me, too. I will never not speak up again. I will never chose nice over right.
I know this is a different organization now—I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t believe that. RWA has grown and changed for the better.
But those changes do not—and should not—erase the past. And there’s still so much work to be done, to be as inclusive as we should be, as inclusive as we can be.
RWA, I’ve been watching you grapple as you attempt to deal with the homophobic, racist white supremacy on which our nation and the publishing industry is based. It’s long past time for that to change.
But hear me, writers, when I say: it doesn’t happen if we’re too fucking nice.
(Some of us are allowed to get angry. You know who you are, and you know who we need to support.) (Note: I cut those lines last minute because I needed to shorten the speech and believed they would be understood without my putting voice to them, but oh, how I wish I’d left them in!)
It’s time to rock the boat in the name of love and inclusion!
You know, even before I made my 2008 vow to stop being so fucking nice, I’d long been labeled as “too political,” because I write books that include gay people and people of color.
That’s not politics. How can equality and equal rights be political? It’s about right versus wrong. It’s about inclusion versus exclusion. It’s about embracing the incredible gift of diversity.
If that’s political, it’s time for YOU to get political, too.
It’s time to open ourselves—as both writers and READERS—to the people and their often harrowing stories that gatekeepers have long made writers erase from their books, for fear of offending the people who hold power.
So here comes the part of my speech where I get “political.” Oh, yeah, I haven’t gone there yet.
Be strong, be brave, be courageous and kind, be willing to take a risk and open your heart to let in some stranger—some scary “other”—and only then will you win the beautiful gift of love, of connection, in the form of a romantic HEA.
That has been the message of romance since we first began whispering our stories around campfires on cold nights.
But somehow, somewhere along the way, someone decided “Not so fast there you. You don’t look like me or think like me. These stories aren’t about you. You don’t belong here.”
Some of us intentionally tightened our circle to keep people out.
And when you grow up in a world where you learn, just from watching, that you are let in, but others are not, you often accept it as your truth. So when you write what you see and what you know and what you have been told to believe, like books set in a town where absolutely no people of color or gay people live...? You are perpetuating exclusion, and the cravenness and fear that’s at its ancient foundation.
Yeah, I’m talking to you, white, able, straight, cis, allegedly christian women.
And don’t @ me with Not all white women.
Because 53% of us plunged us into our current living hell.
53% of us are racist and some of us don’t even know it!!
Oh, wait, what’s that...? You’re not racist...?
Then do something. Prove it.
In November, vote these hateful racist traitors OUT.
If you believe in love, like I do, if you write romance, where the stories we tell are about the courage that it takes to open your heart, it’s time for you to do the same.
Open your heart and look hard at your political and religious beliefs. Examine all you were taught—usually by white men in power—and try to see exactly who and what they erased from the stories they then labeled truth.
Look beyond the fences that they claim will keep you safe—fences that are, in fact, your prison walls. Because the diverse, inclusive world that they’ve erased is vibrant and beautiful and filled with hope and joy and boundless love.
But the sad truth is, we no longer expect anything of you, you 53%. It’s up to the rest of us, including the 99% of all women of color who continue to inspire me and lead the way.
Stand up. Speak up. Fight. VOTE. Our lives, our rights, our marriages, our love depends on it.
RWA, thank you for this honor. I suspect you’ll never invite me to speak at anything ever again. But that’s okay. Because it’s now or never. And my idea of an inclusive, diverse, loving, caring America is worth both creating and fighting for—it’s worth EVERYTHING.
Dear Jason, I love you. Love, Mom.
So there it is. I hope RWA posts the video soon so you can see and hear it as well as read my words.
I sincerely appreciate this enormous honor from an RWA that I'm finally proud to be a part of!
For the record, no one in RWA heard, read, saw my speech before I gave it on Thursday night. These words and message are entirely mine, but I do believe and hope that they are shared by many in this organization whose purpose is to tell stories about love and hope.
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