Author Parris Afton Bonds swiped her first adult novel from her parent's bookshelf. The title—The Golden Hawk by Frank Yerby—was the perfect choice for a budding romance writer: It featured a swashbuckling pirate looking for vengeance, loot and love.
After pecking out a three-page book at age five, Bonds got married, started a family—and wrote two novels, Sweet Golden Sun and Savage Enchantment. Leslie Wanger, an editor at Popular Library, wanted to buy one. She called the struggling author on Valentine's Day. “I was ironing one of my husband's shirts when she called, and I thought she was trying to SELL me books. I almost hung up on her. Then when I realized she wanted to BUY my book, I started crying. I also burned a hole in my husband's shirt.”
In 1980 Bonds, Rita Clay Estrada and a few other writers launched the Romance Writers of America, now the largest organization for genre writers in the world. (Romance novel sales topped $1 billion in 2013.) Bonds served as vice president of the Houston, Texas group.
Since then, the New York Times bestselling author has sold more than 40 novels. She has been interviewed by television journalist Charlie Rose. ABC’s Nightline declared her one of the three best-selling authors of romantic fiction, and her work appears in more than a dozen languages. She’s lived in Mexico, New Mexico, Alabama, Florida, and Texas. When she isn’t writing, she teaches creative writing to grade school children and female inmates, her way of giving back.
Recently, she finished The Texicans, a five-novel historical series that spans 125 years of Texas history. Next up: Lost in her Smile, a historical romance set in 1938 Germany and America.
Bonds will speak at the Historical Writers of America's upcoming three-day conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Her advice to beginning writers? “Don't wait to schedule blocks of time,” she says. “Grab every free minute, wherever and whenever.” Once, Bonds typed with one hand while nursing a baby in the other. “Get something down, no matter how wretched, atrocious or laughable it may seem.” You can fix it later, she says, “but you must have something to work with. Finish that damn first draft.” And never give up. “Write because you love words, not because you love money/fame/adulation/approval/applause.”
HWA member Paul Davis talked to Bonds about her books, life and writing habits.
Paul: Can you talk a little bit about your early life as a writer? Who influenced you? Who were the top romance writers at the time?
Parris: There were NOT any romance writers per se at that time. That genre did not exist. Mystery Writers of America, yes, and Western Writers of America, yes again—but not Romance Writers of America. Amazing, when one realizes romance accounts for the largest percentage of genre books sold now.
Growing up, I loved to read historicals, and those by females were a plus, because they addressed that more romantic aspect that seems to be an essential part of my DNA: Helen Hunt Jackson's Ramona, Edna Ferber's Cimarron and Show Boat, Kathleen Winsor's Forever Amber, Emma Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel, and, of course, Daphne Du Maurier's Frenchman's Creek. Sargeanne Golon, Phyllis Whitney, Jan Wescott, Charlotte and Emily Bronte, and Jane Austin were other favorites of my teenage years.
Paul: You helped start the Romance Writers of America. When did that happen? What prompted it? And how has it grown?
Parris: Having already sold two novels, I was a speaker for the fledgling Southwest Writers Conference at the University of Houston. That night, Sondra Stanford, Peggy Cleaves, Rita Clay Estrada and her mother were in my hotel room, along with Sandra Brown and a few others. Outside of myself, Sondra and Peggy, none of the writers had yet sold, and Rita suggested the need for romance writers to organize. Rita is so persuasive and makes such a great leader, and I went along with her suggestion, all the while worrying how I would find time to corral my five sons, write full time, and serve as vice president.
Somehow, we managed to pull it off, although those early years were a struggle, and we often paid out of our own pockets to keep the organization going. It is now the largest writers' organization in the world, with more than 10,000 members of chapters in numerous countries.
Paul: You've written a lot of books—45 by one account. How do you work? In the mornings or evenings? On a keyboard or with a pen? Do you aim for a certain number of pages a day?
Parris: Having to raise five rowdy sons, I learned to write by the seat of my pants, whenever and wherever I could. On cold sports bleachers, in the ER waiting room, on wooden benches outside Juvenile Court. Early on I committed myself to five pages a day. If I wanted to take off and play tennis during the day or had a function at which I was to speak, I knew I would be working later, after dinner, or on the weekend to make my goal of 25 pages that week. These days, I allow a little more leeway for fun with friends and family, but I do work seven days a week. Writing is an obsession for me. I come most alive when I am writing.
Paul: On your website (firstname.lastname@example.org) you say, "I'm coming to know myself better through my novels." What have you learned about yourself through writing?
Parris: Good question. I find I am more resilient than I would have ever imagined (I am so glad I didn't know when I started out writing what I know now, or I do not think I would have had the fortitude to mail off that first manuscript). My vices and virtues are in every character I write to some degree. I am Everywoman; I am the Jane Does of the world.
Paul: Some of your books feature Native Americans and the Southwest landscape. How did that come about? How do you write convincingly about characters who are very different from you?
Parris: When I was seven or eight, I went with a friend's family to Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico —and I realize this may sound strange—but in that desert landscape I knew I belonged there, it called to my soul. In Spanish, there is a term for this—la querencia.
I mentioned earlier reading the novel Ramona. It dealt with the mistreatment of Native Americans, and influenced my feelings about the mistreatment of the downtrodden everywhere—and my overwhelming desire to root for the underdog. In one way or another, at some time or another, we are all underdogs, so writing about people so different from me is no issue.
Paul: How do you approach a historical novel? How much research do you do? How much historical detail is needed—and when is it too much?
Parris: Smiling at this question. I approach the idea for a historical novel with passion. If an era (a way of life in that era, people in that era, events of that era) annoyingly continues to interrupt my daily activities, I know a novel is germinating, incubating, within.
I read voraciously and take copious notes, most of which I will never use. But they help immerse me in that time period as I begin to write a story centered around it. By the time I finish a first draft, I often have as many pages of notes as I do an actual story. Before I begin the second draft of my story, I go through my notes and extract those details which would best bring my story to life during that period and weave them into the story. The third draft often requires a paring of some of that historical data, because my love of it can clutter and distract from the story.
HWA Board Member Paul Davis features profiles of the presenters from HWA Conferences, as well as other news-worthy subjects. Paul, a 30+ year veteran journalist, attended the HWA Conference and is in the midst of planning for the next one.