September 01, 2016

Susan Elizabeth Phillips

A Chicago homecoming for a romance star
Interview by
There’s a reason why Susan Elizabeth Phillips has been crowned Queen of Romantic Comedy. Since publishing her first romance novel in 1983, Phillips has made a name for herself with her charming romances written with humor and her relatable, flawed and lovable heroines.
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There’s a reason Susan Elizabeth Phillips has been crowned the Queen of Romantic Comedy. Since publishing her first romance novel in 1983, Phillips has become known for her signature sense of humor and her relatable, flawed and lovable heroines. Not only that, Phillips created the genre of sports romance, has hit the New York Times bestseller list multiple times and was inducted into the Romance Writers of America Hall of Fame in 2001.

Phillips’ latest novel, First Star I See Tonight, is the eighth in her popular Chicago Stars series and our September Romance Top Pick. Heroine Piper Dove is trying to get her fledgling detective agency off the ground. Her first assignment is to follow recently retired Chicago Stars quarterback Cooper Graham—and she’s failing miserably. But luckily for Piper, Cooper is in need of someone to keep an eye on the employees at his new nightclub, and he hires the headstrong Piper. The pair grate on each other’s last nerve, but they can’t deny a certain spark when they’re together. Nor can they deny that someone has it out for Cooper, and Piper may be the only one who can protect him.  

“We have these two extremely determined people, both of them highly competitive, going head to head,” Phillips says. With most romances, the attraction between the hero and heroine is instant and all consuming. But Phillips prefers to make things a bit more difficult for her characters. “There is an instant animosity. . . . I like this active dislike and how they work through that, and watching that whole journey—that is just my favorite sort of story to tell.” 

A return to the ever-popular Chicago Stars football team wasn’t initially in her plans. In fact, Phillips thought she had closed the series in 2001 with This Heart of Mine. “I really felt at that point that I couldn’t bring anything fresh to the whole series, to that story of the football player,” she says. But after a few years, she felt the pull of Chicago again, and if she’s thinking about setting a novel in Chicago, the Stars inevitably creep into her thoughts, along with fresh takes on the Stars’ many players, agents and the women who love them. “My husband says the Chicago Stars have had more retired quarterbacks than any team in the NFL.” 

One refrain in First Star I See Tonight is Piper’s struggle with sexism. Overt femininity doesn’t come naturally to Piper. She’s trained in offensive and defensive driving, can take down a man twice her size and is most comfortable in a sweatshirt. Yet she struggles to be taken seriously by men. Phillips doesn’t shy away from tackling the issue of sexism. “I think when you’re writing about women, this is something you have to think about. . . . When you’ve got a heroine in a very masculine world, this is something she’s going to have to deal with.” 

Phillips came of age in the 1960s and ’70s, a time when many things we think of as routine today, like a married woman getting a credit card under her own name, were impossible. It was also a time when women’s issues were making their way onto the national stage. “So many young women today don’t know about [how things were then]. So when I hear women say, oh, I’m not a feminist, I just roll my eyes. I think, Honey, if you’d been there when I was there, you would be.” When I ask Phillips, who was involved in the childbirth movement in the 1970s, if she would call herself a feminist, she doesn’t hesitate. “Absolutely! I think almost every romance writer I know would consider herself a feminist. We write about strong women.” 

However, this wasn’t always the case in the romance novel world. When the genre first burst onto the publishing scene in the 1970s and early ’80s, there was one disturbingly popular trope: rape. As a modern romance reader, this trend from the past has always baffled me. According to Phillips, I’m not alone. “Those books don’t necessarily stand the test of time very well. Younger readers do not get those books.” But Phillips has a fascinating theory as to why such a violent act was portrayed as an act of passion instead of a crime. “We grew up having to be good girls. And that meant no sex out of marriage. So the only way you could have great sex outside of marriage was if it wasn’t your fault. That’s where it all came from. And did any of us who were reading that want to be raped? Absolutely not! It was a total fantasy, and it was a reaction to the way we had been brought up.”

Romance writing has changed a lot since then, and Phillips has been there at every turn. “I pretty much got to see it all,” she says. When Phillips started her career, the publishing industry had been working the same way for 50 years. “Then, through the course of my career, I watched the rise of social media, the complete change in the way readers and writers now interact and, of course, the whole eBook phenomenon.” Phillips, who wrote her first few books on a typewriter, says that watching these changes has been exciting. As for her next move? “You know, I’m just exploring,” she says. “So we’re just gonna see where things go.” Let’s hope that exploration leads to a new novel in the near future.  

Author photo by Peter Irman.

Get the Book

First Star I See Tonight

First Star I See Tonight

By Susan Elizabeth Phillips
ISBN 9780062405616

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