June 27, 1993|By Sheila Dresser

Let authors of serious literature wring woe and Angst out of their every word. Mary Jo Putney is a romance writer, and she's having the time of her life.

From her suburban town house near Security Square Mall she sends forth female Persian warlords, 12th-century knights, sword-fighting knaves, bejeweled contessas and, in her latest novel, a half-Gypsy British earl who marries a minister's daughter.

And she does so with great success. Her new book, "Thunder and Roses," was released in May and is already in its fourth printing. She is the star writer in the Topaz Historical Romance line at Penguin Books and has won numerous awards for her books.

Her heroes are strong but tortured men. Her heroines are independent, bookish and nurturing. They are meant for each other, and by the end of the book they know it.

Ms. Putney writes historical romances. She is a lifelong history buff, reading Thomas Costain's four-volume "History of the Plantagenets" while in junior high school -- for fun. She also likes the psychological freedom history can give her as a writer.

"You can do things in a medieval setting that would be psychopathic in the present," she says with a grin.

For example, in "Uncommon Vows," her third book, the hero is a 12th-century earl. He falls in love with the heroine after he catches her hunting illegally in the king's forest and takes her prisoner.

Ms. Putney calls the plot "my subversion of the captivity fantasy. I've never gotten into these captivity books where the heroine is a captive and falls in love with the hero. That strikes me as nonsense. . . .

"I wanted a guy to take her captive, but do so in a legal context that made him something more than a savage."

Her characters contend with alcoholism, abusive parents, physical disabilities, incest and dyslexia.

"There's nobody who gets through life without major problems sooner or later," Ms. Putney says. "The thing about romance is that you can confront some very painful issues in a safe context. Because you know they're going to work it out."

Ms. Putney cheerfully tortures her heroes, but not out of any desire for revenge herself.

"My life has been made easier by the fact that I like nice men," she says. John, her "significant other," has been in her life for 15 years.

The heroes in her books, she says, are "men in need of emotional healing. There may have been too much war, there may have been traumatic problems in childhood. They're strong men, but they haven't known much peace."

Ms. Putney's heroine is typically "practical, intelligent, very warm, very caring," she says. She may be managing a farm or teaching school. In one book, "Silk and Secrets," the heroine was Persian warlord.

"Feminists who read most current romances would find that the heroine is usually not just looking for a husband; she's usually an effective woman," Ms. Putney says.

When Ms. Putney writes about effective women, she knows firsthand what she's talking about.

She is smart and witty, a self-described "modern woman." She may write about times long past, but she's happy to be in the late 20th century herself. She lives in a newish town house, not a vine-covered cottage, and it's within shouting distance of that shrine to consumer convenience, the suburban shopping mall. She uses a computer, not a quill, to write.

And though her novel's heroes are men of a different time, she makes it clear that they belong in her writing life, not her real life.

"Modern men, I think, are a lot better deal," she says. "I think the modern American man has evolved beyond just about any of the social types you'll find in the past."

The modern sensibilities of Ms. Putney and other romance novelists notwithstanding, the genre doesn't get much respect. When you consider that it's a $750-million-a-year business, it's hard to see why. Even the romance demographics are great: Readers are mostly female college graduates 25-49 years old.

Maybe it's the lurid covers: the ones in which the rakishly handsome rogue in tight pants crushes the panting beauty to his bare chest.

Quoting romance writer Joan Wolf, Ms. Putney says, "All genres have trash, but no genre is judged by its trash the way romance is." That's true, of course. When was the last time Stephen King and Tom Clancy had to defend their genres?

Maybe it's the steamy love scenes and the passionate dialogue.

At one point in "Thunder and Roses," Nicholas says to Clare: "Do you need to feel wanted, Clarissima? I want you. You have the mysterious, subtle complexity of fine wine -- a drink to be savored over and over again."

Taken out of context, sure it's a little flowery. Would there ever be a second date with a man who really talked like that? But in the midst of the seduction dance between the hero and heroine, it works.

Ms. Putney's fellow writers believe in her writing, too.

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