If you’re a Jezebel reader looking for romance recommendations, sooner or later somebody is going to mention Victoria Dahl, who in recent years has built up a reputation for books that are forthrightly feminist in their outlook.
It’s not that her characters spend a lot of time talking up their feminist bona fides or attending protests. But she’ll write heroines like Sophie of Looking for Trouble, for instance, a small-town librarian with a complicated past who feels obligated to present herself as the primmest, properest, most demure nice girl who ever lived—but she occasionally ventures out to bars where nobody’ll recognize her and has a one-night stand. And in fact, she gets off on the contrast.
But Dahl’s books are also funny and engaging and fundamentally lighthearted. Also interesting: Romances set in the modern day (known in the industry as contemporaries) in small-towns are often sweeter, less explicit. But Dahl’s books have still got that community element that readers enjoy so much, making her work a great example of the way you can blend familiar tropes and arrive at a unique story.
We sat down in the lobby of our hotel for a chat about her work. Dahl was wearing skinny jeans, a sleek black top and geek-chic glasses—plus a button with a line from Looking for Trouble: “You’re a nice girl who likes to have dirty sex, aren’t you?” How’s that for a rallying cry?
So, you started out in historicals, but it’s when you crossed over to contemporaries that you really broke out, right?
Yeah, I agree. And [contemporaries] could be a little bit, I guess, edgier. I don’t even mean sexually or story-wise. But pushing the envelope a little bit on the female characters, that kind of thing.
Could you take a little bit more about what you mean by that, and why that’s important to you?
Well in historicals, it wasn’t even that all my heroines were virgins, because they weren’t. But obviously, they’re not going to have the same exposure to sexuality and the idea of female sexuality as a contemporary heroine would. So, for me, it’s just the ability to talk like my girlfriends and I talk, to want the same things that my friends and I want, and to have a way to express those ideas to themselves that maybe historical heroines would not.
When I started reading romance, the heroines were always innocent or defiled. And it was fun—I don’t know if you ever read Julie Garwood—huge fan of hers. The heroine’s always putting the wrong ingredients in a dish or something, and I absolutely loved it. But that wasn’t the kind of experience that I had had growing up as a woman in the modern world. I love to write about women who have fantasies, women who own vibrators, women who are divorced. One of my very favorite heroines I’ve recently written is a woman who’s 43. Her kids go off to college and now she can do whatever she wants. I just love exploring some ideas that I never saw in romance 20 years ago.
I do feel like you’re starting to see more older characters, even in their 40s, whereas back in the day everybody was, like, 19.
And I’ve heard the thinking on that is a 40-year-old woman will read a 20-year-old heroine but a 20-year-old woman doesn’t want to read a 40 year old heroine. And I don’t if that’s true or not, but if all of my readers are going to be 30 and up, I’m totally fine with that. That’s ok with me.
That’s such a liberating point in your writing career, when you can say to yourself, “This is my audience and I’m cool with that.”
Exactly. And I don’t write for people who don’t like cussing, or sex, or need there to be a marriage proposal before there’s sex. That doesn’t work for me and that’s fine. You find another writer.
The thing you said about contemporaries offering the freedom to write a woman with a keener sense of female sexuality being a thing, versus Victorian days, when it was more of a pathology.
Or a man was there to show you.
Did you set out to do that, or did you get a couple of books in and realize, “Oh, I get to do this now”?
I wouldn’t say that I set out to do that. I mean, even my historical novels, my first published book was called To Tempt a Scotsman, and the heroine was not a virgin, and she’s been ruined. In fact that was the original title. And it’s not like she’s fading away somewhere. Her brother’s a duke, she’s perfectly comfortable, and she sees a man that she wants and she’s like, “I’m gonna get that.” And he has these huge issues of jealousy and that’s what he has to overcome—this feeling that he’s been out doing these things. Why can’t she?
So I’ve always been writing that kind of heroine, because I frankly don’t really relate to any other kind of heroine, myself. And I write heroines who have anxiety—the book I just finished (it’ll be out in July) is my very first contemporary heroine who’s a virgin. She’s 26, 27, and so it’s not that all of my heroines have the same experiences. She has a very different experience. But she knows about sex. She’s not living in a convent or something.
I don’t think I could relate to a woman who wasn’t curious about her body or her needs.
Generally when I talk to people who haven’t read so many romances, people ask—so it’s all about the sex, right? And I’m curious where you think the sex fits into the genre. Do you have a working theory?
Well, for me, they’re love stories. And for most of us, sex is a really key component of love. Chemistry is a really key component of love. For me, the two running themes in my love stories are sex and respect foreach other. Those two things go hand in hand. I wouldn’t say that’s the difference between friendship and love, but, I guess, maybe, if you have a best friend, you might have all of the feelings for that best friend that you have for your spouse, except the sexual component. So I guess maybe that’s what makes it different for me from women’s fiction, for example, if you’re just writing a story abut friendships and that kind of conflict in your life. The sex is what adds the love component, to me. Now, for some people, sex is not a huge component of love. So if those people are writing romances, it’s not going to go hand in hand.
The strangest thing to me about people who write novels and there are relationships and they’re afraid to write about sex or they don’t want to or they think its beneath them—sex is one of our most primal needs and urges. It’s right up there with eating and breathing. Even people living in the most impoverished countries still have sex and have children. It’s an overriding need. And it’s so strange to me that, for example, literary writers can ignore that part of life when it’s right up there with surviving, you know? Finding shelter, and also sex.
Finding a roof so you can have sex under the roof.
Staying alive so you can procreate is the primal urge! So, I’m kind of fascinated that people will tell epic stories and not include anything about sex.
It’s so true—or, worse, a coworker just wrote about Jonathan Franzen’s (bad) writing about sex.
I think there is a divide between people who are uncomfortable with the idea we all need sex, and people who are just like, yeah, it’s an amazing part of life.
The normal reaction is, “Oh, aren’t all those books the same,” and “uh, it’s a woman’s story.” And I say to them, when you meet a couple at a party, one of the first things you ask them is: How did you meet? People are fascinated by that question and that story. And that’s basically what romance is: How did this happen? It’s a really important part of people’s lives.
Do you consider yourself a feminist romance writer? Where do you think feminism fits into this genre?
I’m totally a feminist writer. I mean, I’m a feminist, so.
I wouldn’t say I started out thinking, “I’m going to write feminist romance novels.” But in the last few years, people have been calling my work feminist romance novels and I love it. I feel like that’s an honor. And I also feel like it’s really fun to write feminist books without—there doesn’t have to be a declaration. There doesn’t have to be a speech.
One of my heroines does give the hero a speech when he says that he loves the way she’s so comfortable with her body and so comfortable with sex, and he’s never dated a woman like that before. She just tells him it’s not easy. It’s not easy to be a woman who enjoys sex when men have this whole “I’’m gonna get some, I’m gonna get laid, I got her to put out.” That you have to be able to be comfortable with what you want, separate from what they might say about it or what they might think about it or what their reaction is, so you feel like you got what you wanted when they’re thinking they took advantage of you. That was in Flirting with Disaster.
But in general, it’s the idea that these women want something for themselves. I always like to say my heroines are never pursuing something for the sake of the orphans. They’re not trying to support a little sister or something. They’re doing what they’re doing because they want something in their lives. They want to have a career. They want to have sex. They want to have a relationship. They want to make something for themselves, and that’s totally ok.
I’ve been looking to dip back into contemporaries, and it’s currently a sea of small-town books. And I’m expecting something that’s more conservative, a sweeter type of book than I typically get into. But in your books, they’re in a small town but they’re tearing it up at the bar downtown. Do you find there’s a tension there?
I am from a small town, a tiny little town in Minnesota, so there’s no question for me that all sorts of stuff goes on in small towns. And really, a lot of people in small towns these days are down on their luck. Used to be there was a factory and everybody had good jobs and it’s not like that anymore. In my family they’re farmers and it’s a lot of company farming and big corporations and it’s not the same as it used to be. People struggle. People get married and get divorced and date and where I grew up anyway, there’s always a bar or two in every small town. People don’t just socialize at church or whatever. So for me there’s no conflict between small town and steamy romances and conflict.
What are reader expectations when they hear “small town”?
It was funny, actually—I was on a small town panel yesterday and my best friend tweeted, “Somebody at RT read your books and what they thought was ‘small town’?”
That’s exactly why I asked! I saw the panel and I thought “Well, it’s a small town and it’s a great representation of a small town but that would have been far down my list of search terms.” I mean, I get it, I’m from a smallish town—
Right, right, but the subgenre, the idea is it’s sweet and community and it’s uplifting. I guess my books are as legitimately small-town as anybody else’s. But I do think if you say something is a small-town romance, people have an expectation that it’s probably not dildos.
Well small towns don’t have the sex shops, but the Internet exists now!
Maybe that’s the difference. I can write these small towns because of Amazon.
Thanks, Jeff Bezos, for all the dildos.
I had the same struggle with contemporary. I found contemporary reading to be much harder for me to slip into because for me, historicals are almost like reading fantasy. It’s almost like reading sci-fi. It’s a whole other world. There are strictures, but you can create your own world and you can sink into it. For me, contemporary is like—if you wouldn’t want to be friends with these women, then they don’t feel right to you. These are women you know. You know that type of woman that you like or don’t like at your office or whatever. So for me, it’s harder to find a contemporary voice that I like because it is just like hanging out with somebody.
When there was the big “single girl in the city” boom, I had a lot of trouble with it, because I had just moved to New York and I was like, “Where are the people sitting in their underwear around watching Law and Order: SVU on Netflix and ordering the cheapest Chinese food they can find because they don’t have any money?”
My book that’s coming out, it is about a girl who’s from Wyoming and moves to New York and tries to make it in the big city and doesn’t. And yeah, it’s all just streets filled with garbage and a roommate she doesn’t like. But I had a lot of help from my editor on that—she was from Montana and had moved to New York to get a job in publishing. So she was such a treasure to me.
Is there anything you really want to try that you haven’t gotten around to that you’d love to take a crack at? Maybe a specific sub genre?
The heroine that I wrote who was in her 40s was my favorite writing experience so far. I absolutely loved it, and I immediately wanted to make another heroine in that series in her 40s. And my editor at the time said, you know, look, I wouldn’t do that if were you. It may not sell as well as a heroine in her 30s, and you just wrote a heroine in her 40s and I was okay with that, but maybe not do it again so soon. So I made her in her 30s—but she’s totally really in her 40s. It’s Isabelle in Flirting with Disaster. I was like, fine, I’ll give her a number that works for promo, but she’s totally in her 40s.
It depends on the story but if I had my choice—and maybe it’s just because I’m 42—all of my heroines would be around this age. I feel like it’s a really interesting time as far as really realizing who you are and what you want in life, from 35 to 45.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.