Seasoned Romance Makes a Splash at the RITAs!


The RITAs are coming, the RITAs are coming! There’s never a dull moment when the RITAs are coming! What are the RITAs? According to the Romance Writers Association website, the RITAs are “the highest award of distinction in romance fiction — recognizes excellence in published romance novels and novellas.” Every year at RWA’s annual conference, they host an awards ceremony honoring what should be the best in romance. I think it’s safe to say, and I’m using my kindest, gentlest voice here, there is a diversity issue with the RITA awards. Every year, for as long as I can remember, it feels like a familiar lather, rinse, repeat performance of the same kinds of books from the same types of authors. Sadly, the outcries of racism, ageism, bigotry, and just plain ugliness also fall into that “lather, rinse, repeat” category. As a reader, I have to wonder how long this will go on, and I’m sad that it steals the air from what should be a glorious celebration of romance and love. Sadly, as in other forms of entertainment, authors and characters of color, authors and characters of different sexual orientations, characters over the age of 35, characters representing non-Christian religions are not just woefully underrepresented in the RITA finals, they are often shut out entirely by what appears to be a severely flawed system.

I am not a member of RWA, but I am an avid reader of romance. As a romance lover, love is love is love; all we require is an HEA. I think it is also safe to say, representation is not just important, it is crucial. We are an industry primarily run by women and definitely financially supported by women, of all shapes, sizes, colors, ethnicities, ages, religions, and sexual orientations…you know, a reflection of the entire planet. From a reader point of view, it looks like RWA has a judging problem. Books that are submitted are read and judged by other authors, a peer review of sorts. Several RWA members have told me they lack a detailed rubric to follow when judging books. I also don’t think it’s a stretch to say RWA has an even more significant diversity bias among some of its members that must be addressed. But, all is not lost. I have heard that RWA has hired an outside consulting agency to help solve these glaring problems. I hope this is true. It is my sincere hope these consultants will enable RWA to take real action over the coming year to remedy the blatant issues that continue to plague what should be such a special and inclusive honor. Enough with the repeat performances of racism and bigotry that fill my timeline every year upon RITA announcements. Enough with people being okay with the status quo. It breaks my romance-loving heart every year when this unfolds on social media. We are smarter than this, better than this. I am optimistic.

Enough outside forces are ganging up on us women, we have to stick together and lift each other up, now more than ever. We must do better by our sisters, all of us. Since I like to cover mature main characters, I’m going to use my voice to highlight two Seasoned Romances that made the cut this year. I am so excited to share the details and possibly introduce you to some new to you authors! Julie Hammerle and Dee Ernst took some time out of their busy writing schedules to chat with me.

Knocked-Up Cinderella is about a 40-year-old woman happily managing her single life while working as a school principal who accidentally ends up pregnant after a no-strings-attached one-night stand. She’s fine doing things on her own but, our would-be Prince Charming thinks they’ll be better off together.

Donna: What was your inspiration for this story?

Julie: I came up with this story out of frustration, actually. It wasn’t divine intervention or the story of my heart or anything like that :). I’d been pitching ideas to my publisher that kept getting rejected, so I took a piece of one of my ideas (bachelorette auction) and added a trope that I’d never really liked (pregnant for you), and came up with KNOCKED-UP CINDERELLA. I quickly went from frustration to adoration as the story came to life in my head.

Kudos to you for having a 40-year-old woman as the main character in an “oops baby” storyline. While this concept is completely normal in the real world, it is a bit uncommon in the romance world. Tell me your thought process around this.

I know so many “oops babies” born to women over 40! What’s going on, ladies? 😉 I think for Erin, my main character, she’s given up on having a baby—at least the “natural” way. She had tried for a while with her long-term, long-distance ex. She only has one ovary, and she believes a surprise pregnancy isn’t in the cards for her. Personally, for me, as someone who struggled with infertility, I’ve definitely had the thought, “I couldn’t get pregnant on my own in my thirties, how would I ever ‘oops baby’ in my 40s?” And that’s when the best-laid plans go awry…

Is this your first Seasoned Romance book? If yes, how was writing this one different from your other books? Do you have any plans for more Seasoned Romance stories?

It is my first Seasoned Romance! Oddly enough, my first four books were young adult. But I think Seasoned Romances are similar to YA, in that they’re often about people going through firsts—first love after loss, first experience with dating in the digital age, etc. Erin and Ian in KNOCKED-UP CINDERELLA are planning for their first child together. I do plan to write more Seasoned Romances—I’m working on a few right now, in fact!

Tell us a little more about Julie Hammerle. When did you start writing? What was your life like before you became an author?

I’m a jack of all trades, master of none. I’ve always written, but I didn’t start actively pursuing writing as a career until I was in my late twenties, and I really didn’t get serious about fiction until after thirty. Job-wise, I’ve been a Latin teacher, a singer, a real estate agent (for literally a minute), a Weight Watchers leader, and the editor for my church bulletin. And I still hold several of these jobs. I recapped TV shows (like American Idol and The Walking Dead) for several years. I consider all of this research 😉

What were you doing, and how did you react when you received the RITA call?

I had completely put the RITA Awards out of my mind, because I really did not expect to final. I’d entered the past few years, and nothing. I figured this year would be more of the same, especially since the books I’d read and judged had been so strong. Because I’d figured I’d had no shot, I didn’t know the RITAs were being announced that morning, and I let some random phone call from, like, Georgia go to voicemail. A few minutes later—miraculously! —I checked the message (I never check my messages), assuming it was some robocall warning me that the IRS was after me. It was a member of the RWA board assuring me that I would WANT to call her back. So, I did. I was home alone, and dancing around the house alone while I called my husband and my parents.

Next up is Dee Ernst. Her book, A Safe Place to Land, is nominated in the Contemporary Romance: Short category. Ernst is a pantser (meaning she writes more on the fly instead of plotting like Hammerle) who claims Michele Pfeiffer as her favorite actress over forty. Ernst listens to classical music while she writes and describes her writing journey in five words as, “persistence, self-belief, determination, luck, stubbornness” a state of mind I’m sure we can all get behind!

A Safe Place to Land is a little tricky to describe. It tackles a lot of interesting and complex issues. We have an age difference, dead ex-husband, his secret adult child, and an eventual love connection between the two. I am very impressed by how much you packed into this Contemporary Romance: Short.

Donna: What was your inspiration for this story?

Dee: A good friend of mine moved down to the Eastern Shore, and a bunch of us visited her and we all fell in love with the town and the people, because of the natural beauty of the place, but also because of all the very interesting ‘characters’ we met. I was looking to write a series, and thought that her town, my Cape Edwards, and its citizens would be a perfect place to start. 

A Safe Place to Land is book one in a series called The Eastern Shore. Can you tell us about the rest of this series?

The second of the series, Building Home, came out last fall and is about a woman starting over, renovating a house, and, of course, finding love. The third, yet untitled (I hope will be out this summer) is the return of a formerly disgraced brother of one of the characters introduced earlier. I also want a few novellas about the minor characters.

Have you always written Seasoned Romance? What would you say is the hardest part about writing main characters over the age of 35? The easiest most fulfilling part?

Yes, I’ve always written ‘older’ characters. The hardest part is getting editors to admit that there are readers out there who want to read about them! Are they easy to write? You bet. Women over 35 have lead a full life – they have husbands and kids and aging parents and great friends and I think are much more assured and confident. They have hundreds of stories and can teach us so much. I personally cannot imagine anything that a 23-year-old can teach me about love.

Tell us a little more about Dee Ernst. When did you start writing? What was your life like before you became an author?

I started writing after the birth of my daughter – I was 40 when she was born (don’t try this at home) After a few years, when I was going crazy home with a toddler, I heard a radio show about how women are always re-inventing themselves. This person – I wish I remembered her name because she literally changed my life – said that if you wanted to know what to do with the rest of your life, do what you were doing at the age of ten, because whatever you were playing at was probably something you loved. I was writing stories when I was ten, so I just sat down and started to write. I’d been a bookkeeper for years and had worked retail, but once I sat down to write, I knew this was it.

What were you doing, and how did you react when you received the RITA call?

I made it a point to have my phone with me that morning. I ran errands and then stopped at the library (I work there part time) I ran in, realized I’d left my phone in the car, and went back to get it. Sure enough, I was standing talking to my co-workers when the call came. I’m sure they thought it was bad news because I was in tears and kept saying…”Really?” Then I drove home, screaming “OH MY GOD” to myself in the car.

This year’s RWA Convention is being held in NYC on July 24 – 27. Winners will be announced at the RITA Awards Ceremony on Friday, July 26th. Congratulations to Julie Hammerle and Dee Ernst on their nominations. Thank you for representing Seasoned Romance in such an important and exciting way. Best of luck to you both!


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