Happy ever afterer; BOOKS Mills & Boon author Sara Craven tells Jayne Howarth why she likes a happy ending.
Sara Craven, whose 80th Mills & Boon title, One Night With His Virgin Mistress, (pictured below) is out now T hey are the modern fairy tales for adults: handsome heroes and beautiful leading ladies who fall in love and live together happily ever after.
Mills & Boon has spent the past 100 years feeding the ultimate fantasies to women and young teenage girls, allowing them to forget their humdrum lives and immerse themselves utterly in the realms of perfect love.
Incredibly, 35 million M&B books are sold every year - seven million of which are snapped up in the UK. While synonymous with romance, it has just launched Spice, which allows "sex for enjoyment" rather than an emotional attachment between characters, and there are other genres including medical, intrigue and the ever so sexy Blaze series, which delights in such titles as Cold Case, Hot Bodies.
While the genres are disparate, there is a common theme that runs through them: a happy ending. Not for Mills & Boonatang ledmenageatrois, crimes of passion and messy divorces.
And one Mills & Boon writer, Sara Craven, is absolutely unapologetic about that and is desperately proud of the 80 novels she has penned over the past 33 years for the publisher's Modern Romance imprint.
"There are a lot of snobs out there who disregard these books, but they fulfil a need. I am happy and fulfilled in what I am doing and readers love them," she says, in a moment of seriousness. "And why not? They are harmless and they are fun."
Craven, who was 70 this month, was first introduced to Mills & Boon as a teenager in her native Devon. It was a time of pure romance: no sex appeared until the 1960s and then it was only between married couples. The young Craven lapped up the innocent love stories and took armfuls from the local library.
With a head full of romantic fiction and a yearning to write, she took her first writing job six weeks before shewas due to take her A-levels. But it was a world away from happy endings and swooning ladies: she became a journalist at the Paignton Observer, earning the princely sum of pounds 2.40 a week.
"I loved it, even though the pay was ridiculous.
It was very difficult for a woman to get into journalism and the glass ceiling was practically three inches off the floor," she chuckles from the Rugby home she has lived in for the past two years.
Shemarried and moved to the north of England retrained as a teacher - a job she detested - before moving back into journalism, working on the Middlesbrough Evening Gazette and then the Darlington and Stockton Times.
As an antidote to the hard news she was writing every day, she joined the Middlesbrough writers' group. She began to reaquaint herself with Mills & Boon because of fellow member, Anne Mather, who was one of the most successful Mills & Boon novelists of the time.
"I'd never lost sight of the fact that I wanted to write books, but when I started reading them again, I thought I could do that and - more importantly - I would like to do this. "
In fact, it took two years to write her first book, Garden of Dreams, and thought that would be the end of it.
"I was so sick of it by then, but my life ambition had been fulfilled: I had written a book. I sent it off and the following week they said they wanted to publish it," she says, still surprised by how easy it was.
"I was so lucky," she acknowledges.
She was even more surprised when the then co-owner of the publishing giant, Allan Boon, took her for tea at the Ritz and urged her to give up her day job and write full time for him.
"I told him I earned a good salary and he asked how much that was. I can't remember what it was now, but when I told him he just said, 'chicken feed'. He was right," she recalls, cheerily.
And so began a career of writing romantic fiction, engulfing herself in a fantasy world of alpha males and gorgeous women.
A charismatic personality, with a quick fire wit, she acknowledges the stories may appear formulaic as the men must be gorgeous, sexy, successful in their careers, tough on the outside and gentle on the inside, as well as terrific lovers ("They obviously don't really exist," she laughs uproariously).
The couple tend to take a linear path to the ultimate goal of being happy ever after, unlike the modern chick lit stories, which have subplots and have their heroines being involved with more than one man.
"In our books, nothing is allowed to impinge on their relationship and that suits me. It's the way I like to work," says the Mastermind champion of 1997. "But that's OK: I'm not a chick, I'm an old hen.
"But it isn't easy to do. Easy reading is damned hard to write. Not everyone is a storyteller. It's a thing of the heart and I'm providing nice dreams for people."
A prolific reader herself, she was tackling novels like Jane Eyre at the age of seven and attempted to read Treasure Island at the tender age of four, helped by a war evacuee who went to live with her and her family in Devon after being uprooted from London.
"In between knitting comforts for the troops, she more or less taught me to read and I could read before I started school," she says.
Despite her passion for literature and herdesire to write, her teachers had little faith in her. "They thought me too slick and colloquial to become a writer," she acknowledges.
But she was determined to succeed and did not let the teachers' lowly opinions distract her from her course.
Her dream to become a writer came true. Her 80th book, One Night With His Virgin Mistress, has just been published and millions of women are thankful for her contribution to romantic fiction.
But what of her own romantic ambitions?
Has she lived the charmed life of one of the heroines she has created?
Unfortunately not: "I've been divorced twice. I don't practice what I preach," she jokes. "I'm not the stuff of which wives are made. I'm too stroppy by half!"