Friday, June 17, 2011

The Grande Dame of Romance

By Robin Kaye




I met Kate Duffy at my very first writer’s conference—the Washington Romance Writers’ Retreat. On the first day, I sat at a table on the patio next to Kate. I didn’t know she was the Grande Dame of Romance; I didn’t know she started Silhouette; I didn’t know she was the editorial director of Kensington and the creator of Brava. Hell, I was such a newbie I didn’t even know she was an editor of anything. One of us started a conversation and all I knew was that I liked her immediately.

After that, we met on the patio for coffee or drinks at every conference we both attended. We rarely talked about writing. We always seemed to end up talking about her family or mine, and over the too few years I knew her we became great friends.

Kate was someone I’d call a real mench. She was the person I’d want in my lifeboat. Not only would she come up with the perfect solution to any problem, she was the kind of person who would make me laugh as we’d watch the cruise ship sink. She was direct to the point of being rude, had keen intelligence, was more generous and loving than almost anyone I’ve ever known, and had an incredible sense of humor. She was the person I’d go to when I needed a straight answer—I could always depend on Kate.

The year after I met Kate, I entered the first page of Romeo, Romeo in American Title—a writers’ version of American Idol--at another Washington Romance Writers’ Retreat. The entries were anonymous, so no one other than my critique partners and me knew it was mine. Someone would read the first page of a manuscript and the editors and agents would then comment. Sometimes those comments were stinging.

Romeo, Romeo was one of the first to be read. It was a dinner scene where my heroine’s aunt called poor Rosalie a puttana (a whore in Italian) because she’d been dating her boyfriend for two years and still wasn’t married. Aunt Rose spat the word puttana out, and as older people with dentures are wont to do, she spat a little more than just the word in Rosalie’s face.

Kate focused right in on the spittle, and I swear every entry read after mine was followed up by Kate saying “Well, at least there was no spittle in this one!”

After American Title and before I had an editor appointment with Kate, I went out to the patio to lick my wounds. I wasn’t sitting at our designated table—in fact, I was hiding. Of course, Kate was on the patio and spotted me. “Robin,” she called out. “Are you avoiding me?” I could never lie to Kate—it had to do with both of us being raised Catholic and bonding over nightmare nun issues. I said, “Yes, Kate, I am avoiding you. I have an editor appointment with you in less than an hour and don’t want to seem like I’m sucking up.”

Kate gave me the famous Kate look--she dropped her chin and raised one eyebrow. “Stop being stupid and come over here.” She slid a chair toward me. “Sit down and talk to me.” So I did. She told me about losing her beloved aunt the week before and showed me the beautiful ring her aunt had left her. She never mentioned the appointment. When it was time to go, she stood, gave me a hug, and wished me luck.

Ten minutes later I sat down at her editor table, shook her hand, and told her my story was Romeo, Romeo. I explained that I wrote my heroine in first person and my hero in third—told you I was a newbie. Then I said something like, “If I take out the spittle, will you read it?”

Kate shook her head. “No. Cut the first scene. You don’t need it. It’s funny but unnecessary. And you write in third person. Fix it and send me the full.” I thanked her and got up to leave (all of a half minute after my appointment began.) She asked me if I wanted her card and I smiled and said, “No. I know how to reach you.” Hell, I had her home and work addresses and phone numbers. Kate told me to take her card anyway. It wasn’t until a month later when I was going through my wallet that I saw she’d written me a message on her card. “Robin, send it to me. I really do want to read it.”

I fixed the manuscript, entered it in the Golden Heart, and won. I had an offer before I left Nationals, and sold the book before I even had a chance to send it to Kate. A few months later at the Moonlight and Magnolias conference I walked through the lobby and spotted Kate surrounded by about a dozen people. I waved and motioned that I’d see her later. She stopped the conversation, excused herself, and ran up to me. She threw her arms around me and said “Robin, I’m so proud of you! Congratulations on winning the Golden Heart and on the contract. Now come sit down and tell me everything.”

That was one of the best moments of my life. The one person I admired most in publishing was proud of me. My heart literally soared. We sat down together, I told her about my contract, and after I got up the nerve, I asked her the one question I really wanted to know the answer to: Did I make an ass out of myself when I gave my acceptance speech? Kate laughed. “Well, you did great, but if you hadn’t, I probably wouldn’t have told you. What good would it do? I tell the God’s honest, painful truth only when it will do some good.”

Kate dies a year ago last September and I miss her terribly but she gave me gifts that will last a lifetime. Hers is the voice in my head when I write. I hear her say, “Just write the damn book, Robin.” When I want to take the easy way out of a scene, I hear her telling me to dig deeper. Kate continues to bless me with her wisdom and generosity in ways I never would have imagined. And every time I’m feeling down, I remember how I felt to have Kate Duffy tell me she was proud of me. I work hard to make sure she always will be.

24 comments:

  1. Robin, thank you for sharing such a personal story. Kate sounds lovely and I'm so glad you had time with her.

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  2. What a beautiful memory of an awe inspiring lady, Robin. Cherish it.

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  3. "Mensch" is a great word to use to describe Ms. Duffy, whom I naively and cluelessly struck up a casual conversation with while attending my first RWA National in 2008, standing in line for something or other. Pitching was a concept I didn't know anything about, and though I read her badge, I didn't know who she was, didn't realize that she was someone to whom I could conceivably pitch. (Complete n00b.) I rambled enthusiastically about my manuscript, told her my hero was giving me fits. She handed me her card. "Send it to me when you're done. But make sure it's good. You only get one shot."

    Over the next year, Lukas stopped giving me fits - other than the good kind - and TASTE ME (then called UNDERBELLY) finaled in the 2009 Golden Heart. I included Kate in my first batch of queries...and never heard back from her, because she was, by then, so dreadfully ill.

    I have a quote by Kate pasted on my home office monitor: "Get off the internet and write." It's a great reminder, and great advice. She is missed, even by those of us whose life she touched so lightly fleetingly, who knew OF her, but didn't KNOW her. Thank you for sharing the story of your friendship, Robin.

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  4. Robin, you were blessed to have known Kate. Thank you for shring your story. It brought tears to my eyes because even though we all make and have friendships in our lives it's rare to have someone like your Kate as well.:)
    Carol L
    Lucky4750@aol.com

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  5. I've heard so many good things about Kate but was never fortunate enough to meet her. Your story brought tears to my eyes, Robin. Thank you so much for sharing with us.

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  6. Robin, I'm now a blubbering idiot, sitting behind my desk at my day job. I have to go find some tissues as soon as I leave my comment. :) What a beautiful story. Thank you so much for sharing it with all of us. ~Jodie

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  7. A lovely tribute to a much-loved woman. She is no doubt beaming down on you from some cloud (amply populated with cover models like the fellow in your picture), and she's very, very proud of the writer you've become.

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  8. @ Tracey - I was truly blessed to have a lot of time with Kate but not nearly enough. I think she was actually the first person I met in RWA. I won't tell you who the second was - I have extremely good luck when it comes to meeting people.

    @Ashlyn - Thanks

    @ Tamara - I keep this picture of Kate on my monitor. Every day I hear her yelling "Finnish the damn book, Robin!" There are so many Kate The Great quotes, I'm going to start a list.

    @ Carol - Thanks, it was amazing to be in the company of such genius--snarky words of wisdom just flowed from her and I learned so much. I also had a great time.

    @ Callie - I tried several times since Kate's death to write about her and just couldn't. I didn't get through it tear free, but then I spent a lot of the time writing laughing. All in all it was cathartic and I thank you all for indulging me.

    @ Hey Jodie - I didn't mean to make you cry, but thanks for the comment, now go blow your nose, sweetie.

    @ Aw Grace--You always know exactly what to say to give my heart a tug and put a tear in my eye. I do so hope to make her proud.

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  9. What a fabulous story and a truly wonderful lady. I only met her a few times. I wish I'd known her better.

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  10. Thanks for writing about Kate. I admire her, too, but was never lucky enough to meet her. You were lucky to know her and I'm sure she treasured the friendship, too.

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  11. Love the story, Robin. I have my own Kate story about a page she read of mine. We laughed about it every time we saw each other.

    As you said, she will be missed.

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  12. No doubt, it is such a wonderful gift to give your knowledge and support to fellow writers. Kate sounds like she was a terrific lady, and I wish I knew her.

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  13. I wish I'd met her. She sounds like a wonderfully authentic person.

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  14. Robin,
    Damn, where's a tissue when you need one? Lovely, lovely remembrance. I feel like I know her, and we never met.

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  15. @ Shana - She was pretty incredible. I'm so glad you were able to meet her. I imagine she made a huge impression on everyone she met--she was just that kind of person. Completely unforgettable.

    @ Joanne - My pleasure. I'm glad I was able to finally do it--with more laughter than tears.

    @ Judi - We'll have to swap Kate stories at National. I have a million of them.

    @ Oh Lynn, I wish you did too. I was on line looking through some interviews, seeing her on you-tube, and even listened to a few RWA Workshops she was on. She was just packed full of inspiration and love and respect for authors of Romance. Google her and you'll get some of that too. It was so wonderful to hear her voice again--well, the one not in my head. In my head she's usually yelling at me--she did a lot of that while she was with me too. No one could tell me to get my head out of my @ss better than Kate.

    @ Mia - Thank God her legend lives on in the Kate Duffy Scholarship and through all the agents, editors, and writers who knew and loved her.

    @ Diane - Sorry to make you cry...but Kate was worth a few tears. I'm glad I could share her with you.

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  16. I wish I'd had the privilege of meeting Kate, but, unfortunately, I never had the opportunity. Truly one of the great ladies in this business.

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  17. Robin, what a great story. I didn't know Kate Duffy but everyone seemed to think so highly of her. What an honor to have had such a great relationship with her. Those memories will be with you forever.

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  18. Robin, that was beautiful. I've never met her but heard her on workshop tapes and CDs. Even there, I could tell she was someone I'd love to know. What wonderful memories you have!

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  19. @ Cheryl - She was amazing and she left her mark all over the business. Romance is what it is today due to a large part by Kate.

    @ Anita - she was a fixture at the Washington Romance Writers' retreat for years. The first year she missed it, I was supposed to pick her up from the train station and she called me to say she was sick with bronchitis and couldn't make it. I offered to pick her up in NY and drive her down myself. I couldn't imagine a retreat without her. I even
    threaten her to sell her phone number to anyone who wanted it if she didn't come. I won't mention what she threatened me with if I did. I was sitting in a crazy ballet studio and we talked for over an hour. I never did sell her number, and I can't seem to delete it from my contacts.

    @ Edie--her personality definitely comes through on the workshops, I listen to them often.

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  20. Robin, thank you for a great post! My first books were published by Kensington and I heard a lot of very wonderful things about her but never was fortunate to meet her.

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  21. I love that she lives on in you. What better form of immortality is there? She made a difference in the life of one person (actually, many). You can't ask for more.

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  22. Robin,
    Thank you for sharing your memories of Kate. She was my editor as well, and I was blessed to know her as talk with her over the years. As a retired Navy chief, I always appreciated her candor. She said what needed to without fluff. I miss her terribly, but know I was blessed to know her, and she touched so many lives as left a legacy within the romance community. *Hugs*

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  23. Kate was such a fantastic woman, Robin. She headed up Silhouette Books in the very beginning and she bought my first two books.

    I loved kidding her it was her fault I was in this crazy business. She reminded me I also probably never had so much fun.

    She was right.

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  24. A wonderful tribute to a dear friend, Robin. Thank you for sharing such a heart-warming story.

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