Hard news reporting and romance writing seem the unlikeliest of silent partners.
Yet Associated Press reporter Tamara Lush has forged a friendship between the two.
Her first published romance novel, Hot Shade, released in September, tells the tale of a novice newspaper reporter, Skylar, falling in love with an over-the-top handsome Italian journalist, Luca, on the run from the Italian Mafia-type crime syndicate known as the Camorra.
Since her post-college days at WATD, a small, independent radio station south of Boston where she wrote, reported and read the news 24 years ago, Lush has marched her way through a series of highly acclaimed newspapers to land at her coveted position with the Associated Press.
And all while wearing sensible shoes.
But meeting at the St. Petersburg Vinoy Hotel recently, Lush showed up in a colorful Lilly Pulitzer resort dress and perfect make-up, and her shoes were anything but sensible.
Despite covering hard news 8-5, Monday through Friday, with occasional weekends depending on the news flow, the 45-year old journalist was enthusiastic about revealing her playful side.
Accompanied by her 4-year-old Tibetan Spaniel, Dino (named after Dean Martin), and Marco Kornfeld, her native Italian husband of five years, Lush was thoughtful, concise and quick to point out that despite the polarity of her two genres of writing, her craft is a business.
“Reporting and romance writing are both businesses for me,” Lush said. “I write for a living and I create stories."
And yes, some of her stories — the romance novels — have lots of sex.
Raised in the northern California city of Santa Rosa, Lush is the product of two deeply impassioned devotees of the written word.
Peter Lush, her dad, served a tour of duty in Vietnam and then focused on his master's degree in European history. Her late mom, Carolyn, a “coffee-drinking, chain-smoking, hippie feminist,” encouraged adventure, curiosity and education in their only child.
“Dad and I hiked a lot in the Sierra Nevadas, went horseback riding and skating,” Lush said. “Mom took me to the library.”
Tamara’s parents divorced when she was 12, and she moved with her mom to the small village of Lyndonville, Vermont, where she attended a private school.
Though not thrilled at the move from sunny California, Lush said she appreciated getting a “wonderful classical education in Latin, art, music and a lot of literature.”
Shifting from her core reading of Nancy Drew and Alfred Hitchcock, Lush found herself discovering romance novels.
“Even though as a feminist, my mom didn’t necessarily approve because she thought romance novels portrayed women in a certain light, yet she never told me not to read something,” Lush said. "I had the freedom to be me."
Hired by the St. Petersburg Times in 2000, Lush moved from Vermont to cover crime in Pasco County . In late 2004, Lush was assigned to Miami for the Times. In late 2006, she worked for the alt-weekly Miami New Times before signing on with the Associated Press in 2008.
In between, Lush met Kornfeld. An instant attraction encouraged the wine and motorbike aficionado to accompany Lush to Miami.
After Lush was hired by the AP, the couple were able to move back to her beloved St. Pete in 2010.
Disciplined "almost to a fault," Lush follows a strict discipline when it comes to writing both news and romance.
For years, Lush has been following a daily routine of checking news wires while still in bed. She covers AP news stories throughout the day, and in the evening, from 8 to 11, she religiously dedicates the time to writing romance, a minimum of 1,000 words a night. Weekends she writes more, much of it at her treadmill desk.
Yoga also plays a big part in her life and in keeping her balanced.
"When I am not writing romance, I am marketing romance or participating in the romance field in some manner, " Lush said. "Or I'm doing yoga."
As a member of the Tampa Area Romance Authors (TARA) and Romance Writers of America, Lush attends meetings and events to stay connected to a group of primarily female writers she calls "extremely supportive of each other."
This total immersion in her craft, whether news or romance, has allowed Lush to write several books, some completed — some in various stages.
"I have tons of ideas," Lush said. "There are only so many hours in the day for romance and I do love my day job!"
Lush wrote the first chapter for Hot Shade (originally titled Uncovered) in 2013 and returned to writing the novel in the summer of 2014. The story was based on that of a real-life Italian writer and journalist, Roberto Saviano, who wrote a book about the Camorra, or secret society, that originated in the region of Campania and its capital Naples. Lush read about Saviano and his best-selling book Gomorra in the New York Times when she was traveling to Italy with Kornfeld in 2010.
Saviano exposed the illicit business of the Camorra and was eventually threatened by Camorra "godfathers." The Italian Minister of the Interior has granted him a permanent police escort and he lives in an undisclosed location.
Deeply moved by Saviano's story, Lush kept it shelved in her psyche for several years, eventually drawing upon her fascination with his plight to write Hot Shade. Though she set her novel in a fictional Florida town, Palmira, there are many parallels between her life and that of her characters. Like Skylar, she fretted over her first newspaper job. And yes, both Skylar and Lush have fallen in love with Italians. Like Luca, Lush’s husband calls her “Amore Mio” and is extremely romantic.
Asked if he’s read Hot Shade yet, Marco replied, “Well, the first chapter.” Though fluent in English and his native Italian, he prefers to read in Italian as it is a smoother read. Lush did rely on him for Italian references and translations. “I was finally getting to him, asking so many questions all the time,” Lush said. “One morning he said ‘Enough right now! Let’s have our breakfast!’”
She’s setting two more storylines in Palmira (her second novel is currently in the hands of her New York-based editor, Chris Keeslar, considered a “rock star” in the romance genre). She is also collaborating on an anthology of novellas from several romance genres, including contemporary, historical and paranormal. She anticipates her first novella, tentatively titled Tell Me a Story, will be available to her fans in 2016 and will be part of the anthology, which includes about a dozen Florida-based romance writers.
Romance writing is a 1.8 billion dollar-a-year industry and, as Lush points out, "by and large created by women and for women." She says the books follow a simple formula: “The only real rule for strict romance is that the couple ends together in what we call ‘happy for now,’ or ‘happy ever after.’ … You can’t have romance if one of the people dies.”
And when your day job entails regular exposure to human suffering (she’s covered a Haiti earthquake and a mass murder in northern Florida, among other stories), writing romance can be a nice escape.
“Without a doubt,” Lush said.