It wasn't in the plans, but as the saying goes, fate doesn't ask. For Brenda Jackson, fate told her what she would do for the rest of her life: write wildly popular romance novels. Her writing career began as a mere hobby, but would soon make her a notable in literary history. What Jackson has accomplished, most professional writers could only dream—she is one of the first African American to write and publish 50, then nearly 100 books.
Modest, humble and still so very focused on her craft, Jackson shares her purposeful journey to becoming a romance novel icon, and gives up the goods on the ending of A Brother's Honor, her 99th book with the storied publishing company, Harlequin MIRA.
EBONY.com: As many avid readers may know, Harlequin is synonymous with romance. As an author, how did you get your start writing for the famed publishing company?
Brenda Jackson: You’re right. It is synonymous with romance and they’ve been around for years. I remember seeing some of my aunts reading Harlequin. Once I began writing, I knew that in order to introduce myself to the world of romance, Harlequin would be the place to do it. But of course, like anything else, I got rejected with my first book. But that only made me more determined than ever to be a Harlequin author. I knew that to be accepted into the Harlequin world meant that you had arrived. So I was very happy when I was able to sign on— and it’s been a good family. They reach millions of people and have a huge readership. But with that readership comes expectations; they have to know that you’re going to write a good romance story.
EBONY.com: How has your personal romantic experience influenced any of your books?
BJ: Well, I met my husband when I was 14. He gave me a “going steady ring” when I was 15 and I still proudly wear my ring today. I’m 60, so you can imagine how long I’ve had this ring! Then we got married when I was 19 and we had our first child when I was 26, so I believe in the happily ever after and I can’t help but believe in it. And I try to tell people that it does not mean you’re not going to have bad days. But the bad days make you stronger and have a full outlook on relationships. He is my best friend, and I like to write those stories on relationships about two people who may be given a problem, but they are going to work it out and if you visit these characters 20 years from now, you’ll see that they weathered the storm and they’re still together.
EBONY.com: Does the story line of A Brother’s Honor follow the romance genre you are so notable in?
BJ: A Brother’s Honor is just one of those types of love stories where I introduce a whole new family. I put a few challenges in this book that a lot of people can relate to, because a lot of people don’t buy into the “happily ever after” sort of relationship. So instead of that type of ending, A Brother’s Honor (on sale wherever books are sold) is what I call a “satisfied ending”. It shows how two people have to really struggle to make their love work. I enjoyed writing that story.
EBONY.com: Oh my gosh! You’re love story is so amazing! No wonder you have such an in depth imagination for romance novels.
BJ: [Laughs] I grew up writing romance stories, and I think A Brother’s Honor is going to be special. I took three brothers and I gave them three totally different personalities, because that’s how it is. I have three sons, and people say, “They’re different as day and night,” but it’s the core within them that makes them all the same. That’s what I’m trying to bring out in the Grangers. I’m exploring all of that, and I’m having a wonderful time doing it with this novel.
EBONY.com: Do you feel like the books that we read as women affect our outlook on love and life?
BJ: They do a lot of times. I try to remind people that the books are for entertainment purposes only. But there’s nothing wrong with dreaming; fantasizing. A dose of fantasy is good for a person. I always tell people, ”You always have reality.” I don’t know why, but for some reason, romance novels always get the brunt of jokes about fantasy, when it’s no different than Stephen King writing about a person coming from the dead. No one thinks that’s strange, because people know that’s not real. I don’t understand why people think that when women read romance novels, they don’t know the difference between fantasy and reality, just as someone does when reading horror.
Women do, but what they seek in romance novels is an escape and sometimes what they’d actually want in their lives as well. We’re dealing with so many things. I know women who write me and let me know that the characters that I put in my book, such as a man that appreciates a woman, are the type of men they’ve they want. They don’t sell themselves short and that sometimes comes from reading a romance novel. And there’s nothing wrong with that. For us to be able to put some time in our schedule where we can pick up a book or Kindle and read about a woman who may have some of the same trials and tribulations as we have in regard to love is amazing. It’s not taking away from your reality, but just adding to it. Sometimes, it gives you a greater appreciation for being a woman.
EBONY.com: There are so many books out there targeting women that talk about what we’re doing wrong, what we need to do, what we shouldn’t do, etc. How do you feel about this?
BJ: I have a problem with that. I have been to book signings, and I’ve had Black women pass by my table and say they don't read romance novels because they're not real. What is wrong with reading a book about true love and commitment? I would rather read a book where two people are committed to each other in their love than reading a book that glorifies a man who has two or three women, and tells you how he’s messing around on all of them, and how he’s successfully on top of his game. I think people put romance novels down for the wrong reasons. A lot of times, I’ll say, “Read this one. Try it. You may like it.” And some of them will write me back and say, “I really enjoyed it, because it was a love story.”
EBONY.com: A Brother's Honor is your 99th book. That's incredible. Did you ever foresee being this successful?
BJ: When I was traveling and working for State Farm, I started reading romance novels, and I found out, “Wow, this is a nice escape from my hectic real world.” After reading one book, I remember that I didn’t like the way it ended, and I said, “Let me see if I can write a book like this, but change the ending.” When I finished it, I shared it with an old classmate of mine, and she said, “Brenda, this is your calling. This is a good story. You should try to get it printed.” She printed it up for me, and that’s really how it got started. From there, I had written 50 books while I was still working full-time at State Farm in management. I’d go home and write a book and that was my relaxation after a long day at work. I didn’t see it as a second job, I saw it, and I still do, as a way to relax. You cut out the real world. You forget about everything around you, and you concentrate on the world you’ve created. That was the escape for me. And to know that people enjoyed reading it, it just escalated me to keep doing it.
After 50 or 60 books, I was up for a huge promotion at State Farm and I didn’t get it. It was a big letdown. But, a friend ended up telling me, “Brenda. That wasn’t your job. If it were, you really would have gotten it. Maybe you should focus on the gift that God has given you as a writer." Ironically after that, Harlequin made me an offer that I couldn’t refuse. They made me an offer and more money than I thought I could ever make in my lifetime writing, and all I had to do was to come home and write books for them full-time. Not every Black author is given this opportunity.
EBONY.com: Do you have a bigger dream for any of your novels?
BJ: I’ve had two made into movies. BET made one, “One Special Month”, and I made the other one. But, I told myself the next time anyone makes a movie based on one of my books, that I would do it myself. My next movie is going to be “Silken Thread." I’ve approved the script and given it my blessing, and I will work as a consultant on set.
EBONY.com: It’s so inspiring to me that you’re so full of life, and you’re still in love with what you do after decades of working. It's very instructional that you never gave up on your true passion and dream.
BJ: You know, none of what I did was easy. Working a full-time job and writing books was not easy, but I did it. Now I’m seeing the fruits of my labor. My husband and I just bought a second house on Amelia Island. And we’re still young —I’m 60 and he’s 62. You just have to believe in yourself and work hard. It’s not going to be easy. Being a pioneer has also meant sharing how I got here with others, encouraging them, and letting them know, “I may have paved the way, but you need to follow. You need to come right on behind me, because the opportunity is there.”