My Life as a Woman
By Billy MernitNovember 29, 2015
IT STARTED with a fundamental lie. Born a man named William, I became Leigh Anne Williams, a woman who published 20 romance novels.
Why hide the truth now? It was Another Life, back in the 1980s, a time when greed was good and money was funny, and the needs of both the haves and the have-nots were seen through Reagan-colored glasses. At the dawn of that far-away decade, this have-not was living on the touristy downtrodden end of Bleecker Street in the Village, struggling through an uncertain marriage, poor, and desperate for a steady gig.
I opened the mail one afternoon in 1982 to find a short stack of paperbacks — inexpensive contemporary romance novels that a handful of publishers, I soon learned, were churning out at the rate of half a dozen a month. My friend Janet Kronstadt had sent them, as she’d recently become an editor at Berkeley/Jove’s romance line, Second Chance at Love. Janet knew my writing and she knew I was starving. “Want to try one?” she wrote.
Sure, I thought, and immediately consumed the books in quick succession. I soon cracked the code: This romance line’s particular wrinkle, as one could guess by the title, was that its heroines weren’t virgins. Beyond that, the books followed the formula: girl (or, in this case, fiercely independent woman) meets boy, girl loses boy, and girl gets boy, forever. After girl meets Mr. Right, the author then devises ways to keep them apart for about 250 pages, at which point Mr. Right proposes marriage. This felt like something I could do.
Though the books were written in the third person, the point of view always emanated from the female protagonist. If I were to “be” a woman, I began to understand, I would have to convincingly enact how it felt to fall in love with a man. This meant creating a male lead that I could live with lusting after. So I seized upon a guy I admired and envied, a cultural icon who was far afield from the pulp romance universe, a man with killer-cowboy charisma who wrote serious plays, won major awards, and was so movie-star handsome that he actually became a movie star. I like to think Sam Shepard would’ve been amused to see me at my desk, imagining what it would be like both to kiss him, and to be him, fictionalizing him into a Harlequin-esque hero. Worked for me, at any rate: Basing my hero on Sam allowed me to take occasional refuge within a happily testosterone-heavy persona, while I was writing primarily from a woman’s point of view.
Once “Ethan Taylor” the Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright was on board, my heroine’s character fell easily into place: Amanda Farr became a professor of literature at a small Midwestern college, a woman who was all about the classics and looked down her aquiline nose at the likes of Ethan, especially when her school’s dean lobbied for having him replace her favorite academic poet as their upcoming artist-in-residence. This egghead vs. Westerner dynamic followed the sort of opposites-attract formula evidenced in all of Janet’s sample books. Of course, Amanda first meets Ethan before she knows who he is, when she trips and falls into the Silver Falls river and he pulls her out — on page three, no less — heaving and panting in the sturdy arms of this stranger, clinging to his brawny chest. So the lust is kindled before the rest of the creaky plot kicks into gear.
Shameless, yes, but it was … fun. I worked from a skeletal outline that was basically a rip-off of Rebecca — once in love with Ethan, Amanda finds herself threatened by the specter of Ethan’s seemingly perfect late wife, the artist-designer Sono Araki. I was in the process of finding the key to this dime store treasure of a livelihood, which, it turns out, was the same for any artistic endeavor: You had to believe in it. And I did. As the child of parents who were still loving and happy after 35 years of marriage, who’d been raised on a diet of screwball comedies, and who’d always been a bit too much in love with being in love, I was a true romantic. And given free rein to indulge in such fantasy, I fell right in. I knew that what I was writing was the literary equivalent of junk food, but I found it just as compulsively tasty. I was Amanda Farr at heart, and I was happy to pretend to be her perfect man as well.
I pounded out that proposal and the Gods, or Goddesses, smiled. Janet bought Starfire, as my maiden effort was called (perhaps you’re familiar with the subsequent French translation, Silver Falls ou l’amoure en fruite) and became my editor at Second Chance.
One of the unwritten rules of the genre then was that all these books were ostensibly written by women, even though it was fairly well-known in such circles that one bestselling authoress was actually a gay man in his 60s, and another, a married couple. My then wife, who worked at Soho’s premiere gourmet food store Dean & DeLuca (and occasionally brought home delicacies; we were the only poverty-stricken couple I knew of who subsisted on sun-dried tomatoes and truffles) happily offered up her middle name, Lee, which sounded properly androgynous. I topped it with my legal first name, and Lee Williams went into the business on overdrive, submitting a second proposal even before finishing the first book.
For the first half dozen or so, the fun continued. Like any fictionist, I stole what I needed from real life and invented the rest, and given my genre, peppered my plots with a liberal dash of twists half-remembered from favorite rom-com movies. In Heat Wave, I relived a real-life adventure I’d enjoyed visiting an archaeologist friend in the backwaters of Belize; in Reckless Glances, Stolen Chances, I borrowed a cool device from Highsmith and Hitchcock, having my male and female strangers on a European train agree to help get each other out of their respective Jobs-From-Hell. In one book I purloined my own mother’s profession at the time (she ran a speakers’ bureau that specialized in female clients) and thus became a fictional avatar of Mom, Freud be damned.
The more formulaic scenes were more labor-intensive, and it seemed to me that my prose suffered accordingly. Every now and then I’d craft a paragraph or a sentence that read better than one would expect from such material, and I’d suffer the literary snob’s twinge of regret, imagining that my talents were being wasted on Lee Williams. Yet however uncool it sometimes felt to be writing the kind of books that often provoked giggles when I confessed my job to new acquaintances, I experienced a guilty excitement when they hit the shelves within a year of their completion. I once stalked a romance reader in my local Barnes & Noble for a good 10 minutes after I saw her pick up my latest paperback, then put it back after a quick perusal. When she left the Romance section, it took me an enormous amount of will to resist the urge to demand an explanation. Must’ve been the cover art, I decided.
Back then the sex in these novels followed a form that was as codified as a Noh theatre ritual. Lovemaking between the hero and heroine was meant to be perfect. It was better than she ever could have imagined it. His body was unbelievable and he worshipped hers. Adoration was the major aphrodisiac, and with it, the so-called slow hand. The rolls in romance novel hay were slow-motion rolls, featuring luxurious foreplay, each stage of seduction a prolonged revel. Savored sex was the raison d’etre here. Those clichéd cries of “Yes … yes!” gained a new meaning in my imagination. It was yes, you see me, and you love what you see, and yes, you know me, beyond the rudimentary biblical sense: you know exactly what I want, and how I want it, and you’ll take all the time in the world to give it to me — even down to some actual post-coital cuddling, damn it, which you love as much as I do, if not more.
In these affairs, I realized, the love, whether articulated or not (and generally, such verbal declarations were saved for the final chapters) came before the sex. For these women, the sex was more an affirmation — you are indeed literally lovable — than an open-ended exploration. And, as much as the women were valued for their inherent wonderfulness, the men, confident in every touch and stroke, tended to echo the ethos of pornography. They were sexual objects, all-knowing yet without judgment, there to serve and lovingly service their female partners. Though they did without characterization of any great depth, these books nodded to the influence of feminism in the culture. They embraced the idea that women could enjoy a healthy sexual life on terms of their own making, just as they could and should seek parity with men in the workplace.
In this pre-50 Shades era, any hint of degradation was taboo. There was, on occasion, a frisson of rapey-ness: romance heroines did occasionally like to be overpowered. But ultimately, though Brad, Brock, or Buck might scare their heroines a bit with their intensity, the women held the power in the end.
Of course this was the ’80s, and kinkiness had yet to spice things up in any mainstream arena. Anal sex and sex toys didn’t exist. Expletives were verboten, and any description “too graphic,” my editor told me, was out of bounds. I never figured out exactly who had laid this boundary down, but I could see the evidence of the invisible line in the prose of my fellow writers, and I followed form. Once things proceeded below the waist, the prose became highly metaphorical and poetic. My personal favorite phrase among the genre’s many euphemisms was “his hardness.” His Hardness was always seeking Her Womanhood, and I could imagine them exchanging greetings like any royal couple. (“His Hardness is looking well this morning!”) My heroine would feel the urgency of his arousal against her, while his fingers worked an erotic magic at the core of her. Once their souls and bodies were melded as one, they’d be seeing stars and flying past the moon till they reached the pinnacle of ecstasy — together, of course: what, a romance hero’s gonna come first and fall asleep?
As time went on I found that I stopped revealing my secret identity to men who weren’t already friends. Women, on the other hand, were almost uniformly fascinated to hear about what I did for a living. Through my conversations with them, which often turned into fact-finding missions, I did my research discreetly. Expertise is always enjoyable, and I relished becoming more familiar with the byzantine logic of feminine fashion than any gay man I’d ever met. I changed, for example, “black velour” in a description of a heroine’s outfit to “black velvet,” after an incredulous protest by one woman. (“What is she, cheap?”)
Wardrobe was but one tool in acquiring a feminine POV; the more essential shift was an emphasis on feelings. How did I feel when he almost kissed me but didn’t, and what did I think he was feeling and, how should I reconcile this emotion with that emotion which followed this earth-shaking moment, and how was I going to feel tomorrow about the mixed emotions I was feeling today … How did it feel to be feeling these feelings, and what did I think about feeling them?
I make fun. In truth, I found myself examining my own emotions with far more depth than I’d been given to, outside of a psychiatrist’s office. Aping the emotional logic I read in the writing of actual, born-female writers, I got used to achieving clarity about how I felt through a kind of active circularity. Instead of accepting a base emotion I was feeling at face value and moving past it as quickly as possible — a quintessentially male behavior, it seemed to me — I would mentally pick it up, probe it, and put it down again only after I’d gotten a firmer grip on what had caused this feeling in the first place. And that tended to trigger adjacent feelings, rather than rallying me into decisive action. The female point of view, I began to believe, was often more about process and less about product.
Also, very important, was how was he seeing me? The phrase “the male gaze” became more than some words in a cinematic theory magazine, as I became more attuned to the subliminal meanings inherent in the choices women made about how they presented themselves to the world. After years of mono perception, I developed a stereophonic hearing ability, experiencing both my unfiltered subjective male POV and my female protagonist’s, simultaneously.
I’d always enjoyed the company of women, but now listening to women endowed me with a new perception of male privilege, of innate bias. Decades before the term “mansplaining” became popular, I began to recognize a familiar tone-deaf belligerence in the declarative statements men made in conversation, while I heard female responses as often equivocal, self-deprecating, and couched in careful, diplomatic, and defensive stances. In watching and listening to women and men interact, I became attuned to the subtle strategies each sex employed to gain power in a given situation. I even got more adept at predicting what a woman might find offensive — not that this helped me much in my own relationship, where a strange blind spot in communication lingered with annoying stubbornness.
It was no wonder that after knocking out a chapter rife with this sort of introspection, I’d sometimes dive into a stiff drink of Hemingway or say, Jim Harrison. Yet I started to think that even these great writers could have benefited from my daily exercise, which was to write about men, those oblivious lunkheads, from a woman’s far more keenly observant perspective. I knew what my poor sucker of a hero couldn’t know at a given moment, and sometimes I’d delight in getting him in hot water for having so stupidly misunderstood what sensitive Madame-Bovary-moi now so easily comprehended.
Meanwhile, as I struggled with the male-female divide, some of my more artistically minded friends feared I had sold my aesthetic soul to the devil. I remember a cognac-fueled debate at Bradley’s on Commerce Street one night with a fellow writer friend, enamored of Pynchon and DeLillo, who accused me of prostitution. Figuratively beating me about the head with Paul Auster’s New York trilogy, he wanted to know what would become of my taste for fabulism and meta-fiction. Where were my literary conceits, the story-within-a-story constructs, the deliberate fictional and fact confusions that I’d praised in Auster’s work? I couldn’t mount much of a defense, especially as Bradley’s bartender gave a good pour, beyond pointing out that I did have another creative outlet in my songwriting, where the lack of a fan base, let alone a recording contract, gave me free license to be un-commercially poetic and pure.
I did have a fairly reasonable rationale to salve my conscience. I wasn’t writing any Great American Novels, true. But I was aware that there was a large, ceaselessly attentive audience waiting for what I was writing. Clearly I was satisfying a very real craving for an escapism that I knew how to provide, and there was no denying the ego boost it gave me, knowing that what I was writing would be read, not only here, but in Japan, in Sweden, Germany … You haven’t lived, as a writer, until you’ve seen your immortal prose printed in Turkish. There were a few stoned evenings where friends and I took turns reading aloud sentences from the foreign versions of my books that were incomprehensible but sounded marvelous: Lauri’s hart begon sneller te kloppen!
Lee Williams did have her loyal fans. I imagined I could hear the collective sigh of my readers as they turned the final page of my latest paperback dream. I felt that their needs had been fulfilled. And while the repetitions — that 13th first kiss certainly lacked the freshness of the first — the repetitions did get to me, the repetition of a regularly paid rent took the edge off my not being another Roth or Bellow.
Eventually, when Second Chance folded, an editor from Harlequin, the uber-romance corporation, wooed me to work for their American line. (I believe the wooing involved one very good lunch and the waving of a contract.) Here the protagonists could be virgins, but the stories had to be set within the 50 states. Harlequin requested the name change from Lee to Leigh Anne, which apparently would bring the savvy Lee Williams lovers along while creating fans who were new to Lee’s charms. Fine with me. I barely skipped a story beat, though in truth, my machinery was in need of some repair.
My wife and I had gotten married hastily, as romantics often do, and we hadn’t been fully aware of the many differences between us until those differences began to wreak havoc with our trust and intimacy. The “repent at leisure” phase of our marriage ran roughly parallel to my romance novelist career. While we did love each other, we could not easily deal with the mundane practicalities of what being married meant. Chafing at the conventional roles of husband and wife, we’d each become less adept at making the necessary compromises, of doing the work that can make such a union stronger.
As irony had it, while I was artfully constructing happy endings for one idealized couple after another on the page, the marriage I’d been supporting with these books was by now falling apart, and I was starting to lose my taste for romance in any form. Seven years in and at least twice as many books along, separation, and ultimately divorce loomed on the horizon, a situation that wasn’t conducive to writing about perfect matches and eternal clinches. I’d never believed in writer’s block before — I couldn’t afford to — but deadlines were becoming a problem.
Familiarity had slowly but steadily bred an underlying contempt. By now I was a virtual romance machine, and the thrills were largely gone. The advances per book were decent but not huge, and what I then thought of as my “real” career — trying to finish an original theatrical musical and get it produced — was already losing me money. Plied with massive quantities of caffeine and utilizing more and more movie-suggested plots, I cranked the product out, almost like any jaded worker toiling at an office job. My record at the time was 32 usable manuscript pages written in one night (some bills were overdue). Ultimately, I published 20 novels within a period of eight years.
Sadly, as in life, no matter how great the passion, one finds that there are really only a certain number of ways lovers can do it, and I had done it, on the page, to death. After 16 books, I realized that with the help of my computer’s handy Search and Replace function and some minimal rewriting, I could lift an entire lovemaking scene from one of my old Second Chance books, and plug it into my new Harlequin.
“Brad’s eager lips left hers to savor the softness of her neck” became “Buck’s hungry lips left hers to savor the softness of her cheek,” the moonlit river became a spotlit swimming pool and there you had it: Add some newly-minted breathless dialogue, and two star-crossed lovers and one imagination-exhausted romance writer had reached their devoutly-desired consummation.
Because these romance paperbacks had a shelf-life of six months, tops, it seemed a harmless deception. The old Second Chance paperbacks had long been consumed and discarded, I reasoned, and given the true fans’ massive intake of these addictive confections (I had heard that the genre hardcore readers read at least two or three of these books a week), who would ever notice? Besides, I was only stealing from myself.
Meanwhile, my creative soul was fed by “the real work” — that musical which kept getting workshopped, rewritten, and given just enough encouragement to keep me on the torturous rack of hope that defined theatrical circles in NYC back then. Keeping up my composer energy took faith and confidence, while those Search and Replace borrowings from my old novels betrayed unhelpful traces of a factory slave’s self-loathing.
By the time my divorce papers were in order, I had recycled two or three of my old but deathless sex scenes into at least two of my current books. It might have gone on like that, until one afternoon when I opened my mailbox to find an unexpected piece of express mail from my editor. Enclosed was a letter from a reader. With a certain ominously terse eloquence, my editor asked: Would I care to comment, or to make a response?
Though I’d always assumed that the only human being to have read my entire romance oeuvre was my mother, it turned out that one Lois C. of Bundooia, Australia had read a certain old Lee Williams book and a particular new Leigh Anne Williams book within the same breathless week. She’d found chapters that were incriminatingly similar, and she’d included xeroxes of the offending passages, with passages underlined, for Harlequin’s perusal.
What had tripped me up was a contingency I’d never considered: Harlequin, mega-romance octopus corporation that it was, had bought up a slew of the old Second Chance books, and had re-released them, under its own banner, abroad and down under. To this day, I wonder: Did Lois realize that Lee and Leigh were in fact the same writer, or did she think she was bringing a true plagiarist to justice? Was I a true plagiarist? Did Lois have a life?
Moot points, anyway. My contract with Harlequin stipulated that I was to hand in “100 percent original material.” As my editor later put it, I had “broken the sacred contract between romance reader and writer.” I had popped the gossamer bubble, and I was out on my ass in no time.
Really it was just the sort of butt-bruising I needed, to get me to move on to other things. Eventually, when I’d finally had my fill of trying to push that musical up the steep hills of Broadway, I decided to get out of town for good. Here in my new hometown, the only musical theater I did was as musical director of the Virginia Avenue Project, a non-profit program for at-risk teens in Santa Monica. They were a little less critical.
The first screenplay I penned soon after my arrival on the West Coast was a romantic comedy about a male writer of romance novels, who learns through his fan mail that a fan has caught him in self-plagiarism. To save his job, he travels to the remote clime where the fan resides, and when he’s unable to convince her to keep quiet, he decides to kill her. But then comes love.
My selling the screenplay for a cool million with say, Bradley and ScarJo attached would be a stellar ending for this story. In reality, the script has gone through five consecutive sets of producers over the years, and presently languishes in development limbo. But though my romance novelist career is now over two decades behind me, the story of Leigh and me more recently gained a characteristic real-life twist — meta-enough to be the sort that Paul Auster might’ve penned.
My best friend, the playwright Gilbert Girion, had never cracked a binding on any of my paperbacks back then, but he had dutifully sat through his share of my musical workshop readings. He teaches storytelling and screenwriting at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, and a few years ago, he gave his class the assignment to write an original short (i.e., 10-minute) screenplay. The following week, as he sat listening to students read their scripts, one made him sit up and take notice. This student’s original story was about a guy named Billy, a romance novelist struggling to get his musical-in-progress ready for a workshop presentation.
Gilbert listened, with increasing incredulity, as the story unfolded: Billy, pressured by a collaborator to write the necessary music for their upcoming deadline, and hurrying to finish his current romance manuscript and get paid (to avoid eviction, a nice stakes-raising touch), downloads his Tides of Desire, a book written for a prior publisher, and using Search and Replace, crafts the new Winds of Wanting. This student’s script climaxes on the opening night of Billy’s musical, as his agent presents him with the letter from a fan in Australia (an outraged Sydney librarian) that’s caused his publisher to terminate his contract. And “on Billy’s horrified look, we … FADE OUT.”
Gilbert, at the end of this recitation, was in a state. “Okay,” he addressed Jeff, the student, “how do you know this story?” Jeff, startled to be caught in the act of presenting an original script that wasn’t fiction of his own devising, admitted that he had heard it a number of years before, when his then-girlfriend had shared musical directing duties for a children’s theater project in Los Angeles with this guy named Billy.
“Yeah,” said Gilbert. And — this is my favorite part of the story, as it really happened, fate proving once again that she is the best writer of us all — Gilbert happened to be carrying a copy of my recently published Writing the Romantic Comedy in his bag that day. He pulled the book out and tossed it across the desk to Jeff. “This guy!”
What you are presently reading is the true story of a man who was caught stealing the story of another man, who got caught stealing a story from himself when he was pretending to be a woman.
Also it’s about a gift returned. Back when my friend Janet first sent me those Second Chances, she didn’t merely offer me a livelihood but gave me back a part of myself I’d been neglecting. The feminine side that emerged from writing romance has never gone away, and I’m grateful for its presence. The female in me is especially good at seeing through my own male fabrications. For all the time I spent in a realm of beautiful lies and idealized fantasy, my life as a woman ultimately made me a more honest man.
Billy Mernit began his career as a composer-lyricist, with songs of his recorded by Carly Simon and Judy Collins. Known as “the guru of rom-com” for his bestselling screenwriting textbook, Writing the Romantic Comedy, Billy had his first novel Imagine Me and You published by Random House in 2008. He currently works as both a private script consultant and a story analyst at Universal Pictures, while teaching at the UCLA Extension Writers Program.
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