On the Island: How Tracey Garvis Graves's romance novel survived the barren literary seas

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Why did you choose to present the story from the first person point-of-view of both T.J. and Anna as opposed to third person omniscient, which would have still allowed you access to both characters' thoughts and feelings?

I enjoy writing in first person and feel that it's still a bit more intimate than third person omniscient. It's simply a personal preference.

Much of the story takes place after the characters get off the island. Did you ever consider leaving them on the island to carve out a new life? Would this have been a less satisfying conclusion, as their relationship would not have been tested by the pressures and temptations of the outside world?

No, I never considered leaving them there for exactly those reasons. Because they existed in somewhat of a vacuum on the island, I thought it was necessary to explore the relationship - and all its challenges - back in the real world where society, friends, and family would have a strong opinion about it.

Other than a story that many women wanted to read, what do you credit with the e-book version of On the Island going viral: the premise, a reasonable price, a heavy online presence, getting the book in the hands of the right reviewers?

Low price point and massive word-of-mouth marketing. There is really no promotional campaign that can surpass the power of a large number of people who are sharing positive recommendations about a book.

If your book had been picked up by one of the fourteen literary agents who rejected it, do you think it would have still sold as well?

It's hard to say. There's obviously no way to know how the book would have done, but I did have one agent tell me I would have to change the ages of the characters (I had won a first chapter critique from her on Twitter). I considered taking her advice, but in the end I stayed with the original concept because I believed in it, even if she didn't.

Was your husband at all jealous that you were writing about a love affair between a woman and a much younger man?

No. He's pretty secure that way. He knows I'm writing fiction. Plus he's also younger than I am - only six months - but still.

Why did you wait until T.J. was over eighteen before allowing these characters to have an affair? Were you worried readers would think you were promoting sex with a minor?

For obvious reasons and also because I had no interest in writing about underage romance. I was worried that some readers would have a problem with T.J. being almost nineteen and that they'd still think it was too young. I certainly wouldn't have let anything happen earlier.

Do you think your book would have been as successful had the character’s ages and roles been reversed—if T.J. was the older tutor while Anna was the younger student?

No. The age difference was what I hoped would make this book compelling. Though it was risky, there was a challenge in creating two characters that really shouldn't be together and convincing the reader to root for them anyway. To want to see them get their happily-ever-after.

The end point of so many romance novels is marriage, or the story fast-forwards to a happily married couple with children. Does it say anything about the nature of romance, or at least our culture’s understanding of romance, that love stories almost always end with marriage and the assumption that the couple will live happily-ever-after?

Well, romance novels must contain a happily-ever-after or at the very least a happily-for-now ending. The genre demands it and if a novel is categorized as romance, the reader is expecting it. The end result of this is often marriage.

Can you conceive of a romance story that starts with a couple that has already been together for several years, or does a major part of telling a couple’s love story depend on showing their firsts: first kiss, the first time they have sex, or the first time they said they loved each other?

Sure. My current book, though labeled women's fiction, is still quite romantic and contains many of the same elements of a romance novel. The main characters are married but I'm able to show all of those things - first kiss, first time they have sex, first time they said they loved each other - via flashback. It helps the reader to know what kind of relationship they had before the conflict that is putting a strain on it appeared.

Tracey Garvis Graves
  • Ryan Towe
  • Tracey Garvis Graves
The porn industry is often criticized for presenting an unrealistic image of women that fits with some men’s fantasies. Do romance writers present an unrealistic image of men that merely reflects many women’s fantasies? Do you believe romance novels skew women’s expectations of men in the same way some people accuse porn of warping men’s expectations of women?

Possibly. But men and women are wired so differently. I can't speak for all women, but for me, the hero of a romance novel often has several characteristics I find desirable that are not physical attributes or related in any way to a sexual relationship (such as his desire to fight for the heroine like T.J. did for Anna). Pornography seems to center on only physical attributes and sex. I'm not sure romance novels and pornography are an apples-to-apples comparison although they do share some overlap, depending on the heat level of the book.

Keep up with Tracey Garvis Graves on Twitter, @TGarvisGraves, and Facebook, Facebook.com/TGarvisGraves. Buy On the Island through her website, TraceyGarvisGraves.com

Follow Alfie on Twitter or Facebook and email him if interested in writing about Sex & Love

Before heading to work at Wells Fargo each morning, Tracey Garvis Graves took a trip to her own private island in the Maldives. On these mini-vacations, she penned a romance novel that mixes the story lines of Blue Lagoon, Castaway, and the kind of student-teacher affairs that fill the tabloids. After being rejected by fourteen literary agents, Garvis Graves self-published her work as an eBook. The story went viral. On the Island climbed to #7 on Amazon, and spent nine weeks on the NYT and USA Today bestseller lists. I caught up with Garvis Graves just after she signed a two book deal with Plume/Dutton and saw On the Island rereleased in print form.

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