[Ed. Note: The one book that always gets judged by its cover is a romance novel. Chick lit, usually in the form of grocery store guilty pleasures, is a major industry. And behind each titillating title is an author. One of the most prolific in the field is former lawyer Niki Burnham. Over the years, Burnham has published a dozen books and picked up numerous awards, among them: The 2005 Romance Writers Of America RITA Finalist—Best Traditional Series for The Bowen Bride; and Teen People Pick for Royally Jacked. She’s even a former Jeopardy! loser.
We recently caught up with Burnham to find out what happened with Alex Trebek, how lawyers can get more love out of the romance genre, and to talk some Rockies and Red Sox baseball.]
Where did you go to law school?
University of Michigan, JD/MA Political Science, 1994.
Did you practice? What was your practice area?
After law school, I joined a midsize firm in St. Louis and worked in their Illinois litigation group. I left after a whopping four months to accept a clerkship with a federal magistrate (Judge Donald Abram) in Denver when he needed a midyear replacement.
What was your best moment as a lawyer?
I only practiced for a moment, and even then, I mentally had one foot out the door. So a “best moment” is tough to define.
However, I really liked the judge for whom I worked in Denver. He’s an intelligent, stand-up guy with a wicked sense of humor. Exactly the type of person you’d want as a next-door neighbor. Or a boss.
What was your worst moment as a lawyer?
While working in Denver, a complaint came across my desk arguing that the use of one-ply toilet paper in prisons constituted cruel and unusual punishment. My first thought: Mile High Stadium is a hotspot of cruel and unusual punishment. Who knew? My second thought: Is this really what I’m doing with my life?
What was the moment when you said, “I’ve got to get the f*** out of law?”
There wasn’t a single light-bulb moment. My favorite classes in law school were both electives, Roman Law and English Legal History, which was a tip-off that the profession wasn’t for me. At graduation, I wasn’t excited about practicing the same way my classmates were. I was just relieved to have a means to pay off law school debt in the midst of a recession. I knew by the time I started in St. Louis that the law would be a short-term gig and I was already looking for an exit.
Do you think your legal background has made you a better writer? If so, how?
No. If time management and linear thinking don’t come naturally, law school can teach you those skills. However, as a writer you also must work well on your own for weeks or months at a time. You need an innate sense of story and an ability to create characters with whom your readers can identify.
However, I do understand my contracts better than most writers, which has proven useful, and my agent search was made easier because I eliminated every agent I felt knew less about contracts than I did.
What’s a typical day like for you a writer? It’s way better than being a lawyer, right?
Obviously I think it’s better. As a writer, I control the world (an imaginary world, but still). I can wear whatever I want. I work my own hours—sometimes only a few hours in the morning, other times all night—and drink my own brand of coffee. If I procrastinate by reading Go Fug Yourself or changing my fantasy baseball team in the middle of the day, no one cares. My office is mine alone, designed the way I want it, and I have a killer view. Best of all, there’s no feeling in the world like holding your own book in your hands, whether it’s your first or your tenth.
On the other hand, I work without a safety net. If I’m sick or take a vacation, no one picks up the slack. There’s no health care plan, retirement plan, etc., unless I create it. I don’t get regular paychecks. While I can budget based on book advances, royalties are a great mystery. I have no idea what they’ll be until they arrive on my doorstep. And then there’s rejection. It still happens, even after you’re published. It’s not a career for everyone. You need an iron core.
How did you become a romance writer? Were you always a fan of the romance genre?
After my clerkship, I moved to Boston, where my husband-to-be was working. I interviewed at two different firms, but as they walked me around and explained how wonderful their firms were for associates, all I could think was, “I hope they don’t give me an offer.” I stopped interviewing after those two, went to New York for a few weeks to take a publishing course at NYU, then took an unpaid internship with Boston Magazine to figure out how the magazine world worked. Pretty soon I moved to a six-month freelance position at Inc. magazine, and while I was there, I sold articles to a number of other magazines and started working on a novel. I had no specific plans to write a romance—I read across the board—but the story ideas I had fit best in that genre, so I joined the Romance Writers of America and worked to learn the craft.
Was it difficult to break in?
Breaking in is not easy. At the first writers’ conference I attended, an editor with a major house noted that she receives over 2,000 manuscripts a year—that’s full manuscripts, not proposals—from new-to-her authors. On average, she acquires two new authors a year. Other editors on the panel cited similar stats. To overcome those odds, you have to be able to tell a great story, work hard to improve your craft, and have a little bit of luck. It also helps to assume that a lot of what editors receive is utter crap, therefore making the odds better for you.
Romance novels seem to have really over-the-top cover art. As a writer, do you have a hand in crafting the cover art? Does cover art really matter once you’re an established writer?
There’s quite a range in covers. Some have what’s called the “clinch,” where you see a couple embracing while half-dressed, windblown hair that’s unrealistically flattering. There are also a lot of scenic covers—the gazebo surrounded by flowers, the porch swing—and what I think of as “feet” covers, where you see a shoe, the back of a dress, a hat, or some other article of clothing (but usually shoes, for whatever reason). I’ve had all three.
Authors almost never get a say in this, despite continuous pleas to the cover gods. It’s all up to art departments and marketing departments. That’s because the covers do matter. The effort put into covers is no different than what goes into movie posters or fashion ads. It’s all about what packaging gets the product into the hands of the right consumer.
Titles are the same way. I’m batting just over .500 on having my original title appear on the final book, which I’ve been told is typical.
We’ve read a few romance novels (the women in our lives have read a few more) and one thing is clear—lawyers are seldom the male hero. Are lawyers fundamentally unromantic?
You’re reading the wrong books! There are romances with lawyers, though few romances are set inside a law firm. (That’s true of mysteries and thrillers, too, unless the law firm is the story, as in some of Grisham’s work.)
In any story, the characters need to be doing something that engages the attention of readers. Generally speaking, the day-to-day goings-on inside a firm aren’t interesting to the average person. (Anyone up for reading fifty pages of dialogue on an SEC filing just before bedtime?) However, if you get those characters in high-stakes trouble, which often happens outside a firm, that’s worth a read.
We heard that, back in 2000, you appeared on Jeopardy! Did you win a few games? What eventually did you in? Feel free to phrase your answer in the form of a question.
What is “the buzzer?” Seriously. I couldn’t get in on the buzzer until halfway through the game, and then it was on a ballet question that the other two contestants didn’t even attempt to answer. (Who is Vaslav Nijinsky?) So yes, I lost on Jeopardy!
That being said, I’d do it again in a heartbeat. I had a blast at both the audition and the taping. And the guy who beat me went on to become the runner-up in the Tournament of Champions.
You blog about “writing, baseball and other random topics” at The Go-Ahead. Let’s talk baseball. Your two favorite teams are the Rockies and the Red Sox. The Rockies really turned things around this year when they fired Clint Hurdle and brought in Jim Tracy. Obviously that’s worked, but do you think the manager really makes a difference at the major league level?
See, I think Hurdle was great. The guy led the Rockies to the Series in 2007, and the team had to win 21 out of 22 games to do it. The last team to win even 19 out of 20? The 1977 Royals, who had Hurdle as a player.
How can the same person be a great manager in 2007, but be considered a detriment only two years later? Mystery to me. (And one reason—among many, I’m sure—no one’s ever offered me a job in baseball.) But I do like Jim Tracy. And Terry Francona walks on water. Not that you asked.
Let’s talk Red Sox. Is it just us, or have they become totally boring since they broke the curse? Seriously. They were such a great story, but when they finally won a World Series in 2004, didn’t they lose that thing that made them so special and fun to watch—namely that underdog spirit?
You obviously haven’t been to Fenway in the last few years. When you’re in the stands, there’s no difference whatsoever between now and then, other than the ticket prices. Everyone’s just as convinced as ever that the Sox will find a way to lose. It’s ingrained in the New England psyche.
Do you use a Kindle? As someone who makes her living as a writer, do you worry about electronic readers replacing books, or are you one of those writers who can’t wait to go 100% digital?
I don’t own a Kindle, but only because I spend my whole day on a computer, so I prefer to read a printed page when I can to give my eyes variety. However, Kindles are incredible for travel, so I imagine I’ll succumb soon.
I don’t worry about electronic readers replacing books. A good story is a good story. Kindles (and similar devices) are so well designed that the experience is virtually the same as reading a paper book.
What does worry me is electronic theft. Don’t get me started on Google and their so-called “book program.” Labeling their scanning as a “book program” and claiming it benefits authors is like having an arsonist tell you he has a home heating plan as he ignites a gasoline-soaked rag at your back door. I feel the same way about pirates who scan copyrighted works, then post them for download. Lack of copyright enforcement is what will put authors out of business. It’s wreaked havoc on the music i