THE MIDWEST SPIN ON ROMANCE
By Don McLeese
Midwest Living magazine, published February 2003, Page 48
She writes the books of love
The Midwest, romantic? You bet, says Iowa author Leigh Michaels.
Her girl-next-door romance novels have sold
millions of copies around the globe.
SKEPTICS WHO SCOFF at romance novels as happily-ever-after fantasies would never swallow the marriage of Harlequin Romance author Leigh Michaels and visual artist Michael Lemberger. Native Iowans who’ve been together for more than 27 years, they still hold hands, finish each other’s sentences and call themselves best friends. They both work from their ranch home on the woodsy outskirts of Ottumwa (80 miles southeast of Des Moines).
With Leigh writing three novels a year, and Michael also at home (he’s a photographer and pen-and-ink artist), the two seclude themselves in offices on separate floors before taking a break together at noon for a lunch "date." Then each goes back to work before meeting again for a walk together every afternoon.
"This allows us to get some fresh air, but it also discourages us from interrupting other," Leigh says. "We’re both creative, and Michael’s always been so supportive. A lot of people wouldn’t understand the times when I’m just walking around – chewing furniture, I call it – and trying to develop an idea."
"My heroines are the girl next door, a hard worker with a strong ethical attitude."
Leigh says that her favorite valentine was a story Michael gave her describing their life and love and incorporating the titles of her novels.
"There’s a lot of Michael in those romance heroes I write," she says. "Mainly his offbeat sense of humor."
"I may be in some of them," says Michael, who reads each chapter as Leigh finishes it, "but her characters become real people to her."
From the Heartland
Those characters have earned Leigh Michaels worldwide popularity. She’s written more than 70 novels for Harlequin – Including the newest, Maybe Married, and award-winning titles such as The Boss and the Baby and The Daddy Trap. Leigh’s books have sold more than 30 million copies in 120 countries. Her publisher’s Japanese office conducted a readers’ poll that named Leigh one of their favorite authors. She frequently gets letters from readers intrigued by her portrayal of the "exotic" Midwest.
"I loved reading romance novels as a girl, but they were all set along the coast of France or in romantic London," Leigh says. "I always wanted to be a writer and knew that whatever I wrote would have a love story attached. Nearly all of my settings are Midwestern.
"Generally, my heroines are the girl next door," she explains, "a hard worker with a strong ethical attitude and a good sense of humor"
Leigh could be describing LeAnn Lemberger (as her friends still know her), who kept the "Leigh" (pronounced "Lee") and borrowed "Michaels" from her husband for her pen name. With a quick mind and self-deprecating wit, she reminds you more of a favorite teacher than the feather-boa image of a romance novelist.
Raised on a farm in southwest, Iowa, she majored in journalism at Drake University in Des Moines, earning the highest grade point average of any 1975 senior in the School of Journalism. She also won a national William Randolph Hearst Award in college for feature writing.
A Real Life Romance
An internship at the Ottumwa Courier following her junior year was pivotal for Leigh. On the staff, she frequently worked with Michael, then a photographer for the newspaper.
"I took her into the darkroom to see what developed," he says, with a laugh.
After the two married, Leigh worked at a variety of jobs, from radio newscaster to public relations to Ottumwa librarian. Her work experiences and her travels in the Midwest provide detail throughout her novels. When you’re writing multiple books a year, everything becomes grist for the mill.
"You have to keep pouring things in to pour things out," she explains. "Each of my jobs was research."
"She’s always writing a book," Michael agrees. "Even when she’s sitting here talking, she’s thinking about one."
At the University of Iowa’s annual Summer Writing Festival, Leigh has long taught workshops about writing romances, limiting class size to a dozen. More recently she’s expanded her instruction online through New York’s Gotham Writers’ Workshop. She also teaches a seminar at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.
"People who enjoy these books think that because they’re easy to read, they must be easy to write," she says, with a smile. "What makes a successful novelist of any kind is somebody who’s observant, who enjoys figuring out the psychology of situations – ‘What about this person would make her want to do this?’ – and who has storytelling ability and the necessary persistence."
Leigh ceremoniously burned her first six attempts at a romance novel before she wrote one she considered good enough to submit (her first novel Harlequin published in America was Kiss Yesterday Goodbye in 1984). Leigh’s commitment to quality writing contradicts the stereotype of romance novels as either Cinderella fables or sleazy trash.
"A lot of people who have those images have never read the books," she says. "Most romance novels focus on emotional commitment. The important action is above the neck."
Since they work from their home, Leigh and Michael could live anywhere, but their house in the countryside near Ottumwa would be hard to leave.
"We’re here to stay," says Leigh, pointing at the deer in their woodsy backyard beyond the living room’s picture window, "because this is where our friends and roots are, and because there aren’t many places where you can get this kind of setting. I love the seasons, with the turning of the leaves. The Midwest is where I get my strength."
Copyright 2003 Midwest Living
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