Kathleen E. Woodiwiss, a talented author with a humble background, revolutionized the romance genre with her 1972 sensual historical novel, The Flame and the Flower.
Kathleen E. Woodiwiss: The Flame That Gave Flower to the Romance Genre
Kathleen E. Woodiwiss, the woman who would revolutionize a genre and sell millions of books, influencing hundreds, if not thousands, of authors, came from humble beginnings.
Kathleen Erin Hogg was born on June 3, 1939, in Alexandria, Louisiana She was the youngest of eight children born to a disabled World War I veteran and his wife. Kathleen was an imaginative child, creating her own stories that she would tell herself to help her fall asleep. At the age of 12, her father died suddenly, upending her family life.
At 16, she met and instantly fell in love with an Air Force lieutenant, Ross Eugene Woodiwiss. Kathleen would marry him the next year, in 1956, while still attending high school. She graduated in 1957.
The couple spent the next few decades married, having children, and moving all around the globe.
Along the way, they lived in Tokyo, where Woodiwiss did some modeling. The family finally settled down in Minnesota.
After becoming a novelist, Woodiwss experienced some health problems that limited her output. Her marriage ended in divorce in the 1990s, which would further exacerbate her bouts of writer’s block.
The Path to Being a Romance Author
According to the New York Times, as a young wife and mother, Woodiwiss found most of the available “women’s fiction” unsatisfying.
“I couldn’t find anything good to read, ad, a good romantic book to pass a few hours away, so I decided to write one myself. I just started pecking away at this story set during the American Revolution. It wasn’t anything I could get completely absorbed in.I had three boys at home, and there were always dishes to put in the dishwasher.”KATHLEEN WOODIWISS to NY TIMES, 1977
In the early 1970s, she completed a 600-page manuscript, which she submitted to various publishers but was rejected for being too long. So rather than rewrite or edit the novel, she sent it to paperback publishers (whose standards were admittedly not discriminating).
The Flame and the Flower
The Flame and the Flower, the novel she had submitted, was quickly purchased by Avon. Editor Nancy Coffey was sure they had a hit on their hands and arranged an initial 500,000 print run. How right she would be.
Up until 1972, romance novels, whether Gothics, medical romances, romantic comics, or Mills and Boon/Harlequin, would have fade-to-black love scenes. At best, they were described in euphemistic terms, like Margaret Mitchell had done in Gone With the Wind to describe Rhett and Scarlett’s turbulent lovemaking after he carried her up the stairs.
Books were already published that described sex in detail, but they were not “polite reads” and were considered obscene. Harold Robbins, Jaqueline Susann, and Jackie Collins had already written salacious novels that hit the tops of the bestseller lists.
However, those weren’t typical “clean reads” aimed at housewives with children and families to care for.
The 1960s and 1970s saw a radical transformation in how sexuality was addressed in the media. Now the time was ripe for a change in the romance genre. The Flame and the Flower was a monumental novel. It was an epic historical romance with a purportedly strong heroine and had actually “graphic” sex scenes.
The Flame and the Flower sold over 2.3 million copies in its first four-year run alone, eventually selling 3.5 million.
Not a Political Figure
Throughout her career, Kathleen Woodiwiss was a self-described traditionalist and did not like her books to be considered overtly sexual or obscene.
Despite being the catalyst of change, Woodiwiss was on record as describing herself as not being a feminist or even that political.
“I’m insulted when my books are called erotic. I don’t think people who say that have read my books. I believe I write love stories. With a little spice. Some of the other current romances are a bit savage, though. They make sex dirty. It’s embarrassing to read them. But women are looking for the love story. I get a lot of fan mail, and they tell me that.”KATHLEEN WOODIWSS to PUBLISHER’s WEEKLY’S Giovanna Breu, 1977
And indeed, compared to the much more extreme bodice rippers that would follow, Woodiwiss’ novels are actually quite tame by 1970s standards. While the more savage bodice rippers would sell millions, eventually, over time, they lost appeal with romance readers.
After the novelty of free-for-all sex and violence wore out, writers like Woodiwiss would end up with life-long careers rather than fizzling out after churning out a few books in the 1970s
“I never set out to give anyone a ‘message,’” Woodiwiss said of her novels in an interview posted on her website. “My desire has always been to entertain my readers.”
Kathleen Woodiwiss, Superstar Author
Romance Genre Pioneer
The success of her first book catapulted the humble Woodiwiss to stardom, as her next two books, The Wolf and the Dove and Shanna, would also sell millions each. Shanna was released in trade and hardcover editions. The publishers promoted advertisement spots on television, which was unheard of for a “mere” romance.
While Kathleen Woodiwiss opened the door to bedroom scenes, she was certainly not the most explicit author in the romance genre. Rosemary Rogers would follow in her wake. Her heroines were more sexually active, with multiple partners, and some were not virgins from the outset.
Playboy Press‘s Susan Johnson would take sex scenes even further with her sex-hungry heroes. Johnson employed four-letter words as dirty talk, all a far cry from Woodiwiss’ relatively sweet lovemaking scenes.
As Woodiwiss often took several years to write a novel, many new authors came on the scene. Some were more prolific or successful than she was. But Woodiwiss would not be forced to write. She did not want to suffer from burnout.
Health Problems Affected Her Career
She discovered that her lack of concentration was brought on by overactive parathyroid glands, which created calcium deposits on her joints, eyes, and brain. Surgery soon reversed that.
Nevertheless, she released only 13 full-length novels over almost 35 years. So, every new Woodiwiss book was heralded as an event for Avon, who remained her only publisher throughout her career. Her romances would come out in trade and hardcover before the mass-market paperback editions, a sign of an elite-status author.
My “Rocky Relationship” With Kathleen Woodiwiss
I have a horrible secret to confess. Although I love bodice rippers and old-school historicals, I have only finished one Kathleen E. Woodiwiss novel. Why is this? I can’t really say. Maybe my ADHD requires shorter paragraphs for me to pay attention to, but I will keep on trying.
I did read Shanna in 2022 and found it, for the most part, a solid read. I aim to read The Flame and the Flower soon!
Legacy and Death
Although never loved by the mass media, Woodiwiss had millions of devoted fans worldwide.
“I never started out to win any prizes for my writing. I wanted to appease a hunger for romantic novels, and that is what I shall continue to do…[My books] are fairy tales. They are an escape for the reader, like an Errol Flynn movie.”KATHLEEN WOODIWSS to NY TIMES’ Judy Klemesrud, 1979
Kathleen Woodiwiss influenced generations of romance writers, from LaVyrle Spencer to Susan Elizabeth Phillips to Julia Quinn.
In her lifetime, Woodiwiss published 13 novels, all bestsellers, plus two novellas. She had over 36 million books in print. Kathleen E. Woodiwiss was working on her final novel, Everlasting, when she succumbed to cancer in 2007, passing away at 68.
Her ex-husband predeceased her in 1996. She also lost a son just months before her death.
She was his; he was hers. The world could fall apart, and they’d still be one.A ROSE IN THE WINTER
Kathleen E. Woodiwiss Backlist
|Book Title||Date Pub|
|The Flame and the Flower||Apr-1972|
|The Wolf and the Dove||Mar-1974|
|Ashes in the Wind||Sep-1979|
|A Rose in Winter||Dec-1982|
|Come Love a Stranger||Nov-1984|
|So Worthy My Love||Oct-1989|
|Forever in Your Embrace||Oct-1992|
|The Kiss (ss)||Sep-1995|
|Beyond the Kiss (ss)||Sep-1996|
|Petals on the River||Dec-1997|
|The Elusive Flame||Oct-1998|
|A Season Beyond a Kiss||Feb-2000|
|The Reluctant Suitor||Mar-2003|
Kathleen Woodiwss Book Covers
- Harper Collins Kathleen E. Woodiwiss Page
- NY Times Obituary
- LA Times Obituary
- The Guardian Obituary
- NY Times: Behind the Bestsellers