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Salt Spring-based romance novelist Karina Halle has published more than 60 novels—but can't escape 'porn' snobbery

Halle's most recent work, The Royals Next Door, has been optioned for a movie

By Gabrielle Drolet
July 20, 2022
Know Your Neighbour
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Salt Spring-based romance novelist Karina Halle has published more than 60 novels—but can't escape 'porn' snobbery

Halle's most recent work, The Royals Next Door, has been optioned for a movie

Karina Halle (Submitted)
Karina Halle (Submitted)
Know Your Neighbour
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Salt Spring-based romance novelist Karina Halle has published more than 60 novels—but can't escape 'porn' snobbery

Halle's most recent work, The Royals Next Door, has been optioned for a movie

By Gabrielle Drolet
July 20, 2022
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Salt Spring-based romance novelist Karina Halle has published more than 60 novels—but can't escape 'porn' snobbery

Vancouver Islanders remember the endless headlines emanating from North Saanich in early 2020, when Prince Harry and Meghan Markle settled into a house on the coast. For many, the royals’ presence was a source of gossip and excitement; for others it was a nuisance. For romance novelist Karina Halle, it was the start of an idea for a new book.

Halle, a self-described “BC Girl” who grew up in Vancouver, has lived on Salt Spring Island since 2012. When she heard the Duke and Duchess of Sussex were staying nearby she couldn’t stop wondering what it would be like to have them as neighbours. The resulting novel is The Royals Next Door, which was published by Penguin Random House in 2021 and has been optioned as a movie by Mark Holder of Wonder Street. 

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The book follows Piper, a teacher whose life gets messy when members of the royal family move into her Salt Spring Island neighbourhood. Halle thought it would be interesting to explore how a tight-knit, isolated community like Salt Spring might react to having royals among its 11,000 residents.

“​​Salt Spring Island is a very interesting place, and there's never really any books written about it,” she says. Halle is a New York Times best-selling author with more than 60 novels under her belt. The Royals Next Door is the first one she’s set where she lives.

The book focuses on Piper’s misadventures as she falls in love with the royal bodyguard, but it features elements drawn from real life. One of these is that it playfully tackles the stigma against romance as a genre: Piper secretly runs a podcast about romance novels, and worries it might harm her career and ostracise her from her community if people found out. 

People—real and, in her case, fictional—have a tendency to look down on the genre as being silly, lesser-than, or even filthy.

The kind of reaction Piper fears is part of a reality Halle and other romance novelists are all too familiar with.

In June, a neighbour on Salt Spring stopped her husband to ask if Halle was still writing “soft-core porn.”

Halle spends parts of the year at a second home in LA, but she says the dismissal of romance feels especially pronounced in Canada, where the genre hasn’t been as readily embraced—despite how well the genre sells. Romance accounts for as much as one in five books sold, but Halle often notices a glaring absence of romance novels on bookstores’ display shelves. She’s also more aware of snide comments or eye rolling surrounding her work here. 

“It's really tiring and lazy to stereotype romance authors and romance readers in that kind of way,” Halle says. “Yeah, the books often contain sex, but they don't have to. It’s more than that.”

Halle stresses that people usually have no ill-intent when they make the kinds of comments her husband got from their neighbour, but it’s still frustrating. The problem isn’t that people associate romance with sex—the genre does often contain sex scenes, and they’re a big part of her work. The problem is that many are unable to view sexual content as valuable, or to recognize its other aspects: the stories, characters, and writing that make up these books.

Halle speculates that much of the snobbery surrounding her work comes from deep-rooted misogyny—romance is largely written and read by women—as well as prudishness. She’s noticed that outdated attitudes towards romance tend to come from older generations, which might be why she’s hyper aware of it on Salt Spring Island, which has a large population of retirees. Halle explains that the problem isn’t the island itself, though: it’s a specific certain brand of older, socially conservative Canadian who feels uncomfortable with sex being part of pop culture. The Salt Spring library branch's own statistics back her up: even on Salt Spring, her books have a hot circulation.

None of this surprises Halle anymore. Though she feels the stigma around romance most deeply in Canada, it exists everywhere in the literary world, and has for as long as she’s been publishing her work.

Uncharted waters

Halle finished her first novel over a six-week span in 2009, writing furiously around a full-time marketing job: she woke up early each morning to write at her kitchen table before commuting from Tsawassen to Burnaby, where she wrote during her lunch break. When she got home at the end of the day, she continued to write. Suddenly, she’d finished a draft.

She spent the next year editing this first book. Then she wrote another. And another. By 2011, she had finished an entire trilogy of dark romance books. She considered finding an agent or a publisher. Instead she held off, watching as the literary landscape rapidly shifted around her.

This was a time when self-publishing was taking off in a meaningful way. 

“It definitely felt like a time of uncharted waters. Of course, self-publishing had existed for years, but there was a lot of stigma surrounding it,” says K.A Tucker, a Canadian romance author and friend of Halle’s who came up in the industry around the same time. 

But there were promising signs, too. Amazon was securing its place as the go-to seller for self-published titles. The growing popularity of e-books made it even easier to put your work out there. Authors like Amanda Hocking were gaining massive amounts of commercial success. Book bloggers had a surprising amount of power, able to sway readers towards lesser-known novels with their recommendations. 

This was the context in which Halle finally published her first book, Dark House, in May of 2011. Self-publishing was exploding; Fifty Shades of Grey had been published just days earlier and there was a hunger for the kind of books usually ignored by traditional imprints. Romance in particular was having a moment—research from 2013 showed that 71% of self-published books were purchased by women, and romance was the leading genre. 

Halle listed her book on Amazon and waited for the sales to roll in. Instead, like with most self-published authors, Halle watched as the book only sold a handful of copies, mostly to family and friends.

As the year wore on, she released three more books and a novella, none of which sold much. “It wasn't really going anywhere,” she recalls.

Halle kept writing and publishing books while working full-time in marketing at an engineering firm, assuming her novels would remain a side hobby. Things changed quickly in June 2012, when Maryse Black, a book blogger with sway among romance readers, recommended Halle’s books.

“Because of her, my series just suddenly took off,” Halle says. Come summer, she quit her job to write full time, earning more from her book sales than from work. 

Halle at a charity book signing event in 2018. Photo: Submitted

There’s one more important thing to note about the cultural context in which Halle’s career took off. What drew many readers to self-published works in the early 2010s wasn’t just romance—it was sex. After the Fifty Shades series exploded, people actively sought out other novels with erotic scenes or themes. This is especially true of women, who made up 91% of romantic fiction’s readership at the time. 

“Of course, all genders can enjoy romance books, but they're written usually to favour the heroine,” Halle says. When so much of the sex we see in popular media is centred around men’s experiences, sex scenes that flipped the script felt powerful and exciting: “It's really putting the control back into women's hands because it's tailored to them and what they want. I think that was kind of missing for a long time.”

However, the very thing that made the genre so popular also made it controversial. As many accepted and embraced stories that featured sex, snobbery and moral panic loomed large. Some viewed romance as silly and lesser-than the genres it actively outsold; others just saw it as filth. A decade later, these attitudes still linger.

Happy endings

As a teenager in the 90s, Halle wrote fanfiction about her favourite pop culture characters (Mulder and Scully from The X-Files, Dr. Sattler and Dr. Grant from Jurassic Park), mixing her love of romance with the horror and sci-fi worlds she was obsessed with. This is still reflected in much of her work: though Halle’s books all fall under the romance genre, many of them intersect with horror and the supernatural. She describes her first series as a modern-day Mulder and Scully adventure, combining romance with the paranormal.

Halle worked as a writer in a few other capacities before becoming a novelist: she studied screenwriting, she spent a few years as a travel writer and music journalist, interviewing the likes of Chris Cornell and Slayer, and she found odd jobs that would pay the bills, writing marketing copy for companies. However, she seems best suited to the life she’s settled into now. 

She and her husband Scott MacKenzie, who’s also a writer, were drawn to Salt Spring because of its arts scene, wanting to get out of the city.

“Salt Spring is full of people who are extremely accomplished in the arts,” he says. “It's worked for us really well, in a creative way.”

Halle wanted a quiet place to put her head down and work, which is exactly what she does, writing five to eight books per year. She attributes her fast writing to having ADHD, which pushes her to finish projects more quickly.

“If I don't get it all over with at once I kind of lose interest,” she says.

Her life is very different now than when she entered the industry. The success of Halle’s self-published titles led to deals with publishers like Hachette Book Group and Simon & Schuster. Though the attitude towards romance has stayed relatively the same, it seems like it’s slowly starting to improve.

“I would say more Canadians still lean toward literary works and thriller or suspense as ‘reputable’ reading choices, but I've also seen a shift in recent years,” Tucker says, reflecting on the past decade in the industry. Halle has also noticed romance books being advertised more in stores like Indigo, populating the more prominent shelves, out of the back corners.

Halle wants people to understand that romance novels are varied, and people turn to the genre for all sorts of reasons. One of the main ones seems to be escapism—which, during an ongoing pandemic, can be especially meaningful.

“Despite what's going on in the world out there, you know that you're going to have your happy ending,” she says. “That’s something powerful.”

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