We’ve covered Love Between the Covers twice already during this past week (see: our review, our interview with two participants), as the documentary about romance fiction writers from Laurie Kahn made its debut at the Hot Docs. But after we got a chance to speak with Kahn over the phone last weekend, we had to seize that charm and cover it a third time.
Kahn is a woman after our own heart, championing women and women’s issues, both through the films she makes and how she makes them. Before working on Love Between the Covers, which has its final Hot Docs screening this Friday, Kahn also directed a film about the women of Tupperware, and hopes to continue telling women’s stories as she looks ahead to what’s next. You can get some insight on all that, as well as a look at the development of Love Between the Covers and the strong ladies leading the industry that inspired it, with our full Q&A with Kahn below.
Were you a fan of romantic fiction [before this]? Did you read the work of these authors before getting to know them for the film?
Laurie Kahn: I read hundreds of novels before I started speaking to anybody because I wanted to know what I was talking about! I went to the Romance Writers of America conference. I went to a regional conference. I went to a romance fan conference.
Did it surprise you to see that women who are successful in other areas of their life are looked down upon for having this as a side project? It almost seems too expected to me, given the stigmas attached to the genre.
LK: There were a bunch of things that really surprised me. I did not realize how many people were extremely successful. Like Len [Barot], ,who is surgeon who writes three romances a year while being a doctor! Or Mary Bly, a.k.a. Eloise James, who is a Shakespeare professor by day and romance author by night.
I don’t think I had realized the range in income levels, education levels, race, sexuality. There are all these different people writing romance!
It almost seems like one of the most representative communities, both in terms of authors and in terms of characters.
LK: Yep! And it’s an unusual thing. I mean, where else is a woman always centre stage?
There’s [the Bechedel Test] of how many times a woman is speaking in a film and what are they speaking about it, and they’re usually speaking about men. How many films pass that test and women are actually talking about other things? Romance is a place where the woman is always a central character and that’s something you don’t have elsewhere.
I really love that one quote that Beverly Jenkins said: ‘We’re not looking for a stupid heroine … we’re looking for a woman who has her shit together and the man is the whipped cream.’
LK: There is this very big range in romance, but they’re not the sort of romances that people think of their grandmother reading, where it’s the virginal heroine who is waiting to be saved by the guy. There are navy seals heroines who can kick ass! And there are evangelical heroines who are more innocent, but they also have fun. I think these romance heroines can hold their own.
Speaking of holding their own, there were so many great characters to be found in the authors you spoke to for your film. Did you struggle to figure out which women to feature? I almost feel like you could make a miniseries with one episode for each woman. I would watch a whole movie just about Beverly Jenkins!
LK: I know, I know! She’s lovable. [Laughs]
I had an incredibly hard time picking who my main characters would be. I had about twelve people. I did interviews with about sixty or seventy people.
I mean, there’s one video diary keeper in the film who’s from Australia, but I also gave video diaries and cameras to somebody in the North of England, and someone in India, and someone in Georgia in the South of the U.S. So a lot of great stories didn’t make it in.
And I love the idea of a series. It would fun if someone would fund it! [Laughs]
When you say you had more video diary keepers, I’m assuming you mean more aspiring romance writers?
LK: The ones I gave video diary cameras to were unpublished. They were all aspiring authors showing us what it took. I was looking for people who made it and people who didn’t succeed.
So what made you decide that [Joanne Lockyer] was the one you wanted to feature?
LK: She’s a very good photographer and gave us–I’m not kidding!–hundreds of hours of footage. I knew so much about her life and I love it when she finally self-publishes and opens that package at the end of the film. It’s visceral, you know?
I also liked when she was shooting the cover for her book, doing it all on her own. It just seems like this is a business where women are self-sufficient and are trying to make it work, no matter what it takes. Even it means making your own costumes for a cover.
LK: I mean, that’s going one step further, but all of these romance authors are doing their own marketing. They’re building a community of readers. They do their own Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr and Pinterest. They’re all over it and if they’re not, they’re not going to succeed!
It’s an entrepreneurial venture, really. People think of it as lonely women in attics eating bon-bons and crying over their typewriters, but no, it’s these women who are completely networked, plugged into each other, plugged into readers. And they become real friends with their readers. They find each other through the internet. I was really surprised by how close they become–and I mean, genuine friends!–because of these books.
I think it’s a very female thing, actually. I mean, you don’t see Star Wars fans or Trekkies contacting somebody when someone’s kid is sick. That happens in the romance community.
Are male authors in the community? How many men are attending these conventions, if at all?
LK: Ninety five per cent of the writers are women. Somewhere between 80 to 90 per cent of the readers are women. It really is a female phenomenon.
I mean, I think some men would enjoy these books. I don’t think they would be caught dead reading them because of the stigma, but there are paranormal books with vampires and werewolves that are well-written. Nalini Singh is a wonderful author who I wanted to put in the film. There are lots of crossover books.
We’re going to do a live-read series with the American Library Association in local libraries all over the place where local authors can come and talk and sign their books, or people can have an evening where they dress up in [period] costumes and eat food that they would eat then. But we’ve also talked about having men’s groups read Nora Roberts so they can come to understand what women really want.
So you’re not doing that yet, but you’d like to try that?
LK: Well, [the library programs] will probably happen when the film has been broadcast. I’m going to take the film out to festivals for the next ten months and then I’m not sure what the sequence will be and how it gets released. It’s one of the things I’m figuring out here at Hot Docs.
One example of a successful book within the genre is 50 Shades of Grey. You only mentioned it once in the movie. Was that purposeful? Did you want to avoid it?
LK: Well, 50 Shades is a romance in many ways in that it’s about a romance and it ends optimistically and the couple is together in the end. In that sense, it’s a romance, but [author E.L. James] is not part of the romance community that the film was about. She came out of fan-fiction, was writing Twilight fan-fiction and then ended up publishing it. My film is really about the community and she came out of left field.
… I didn’t want to not mention [50 Shades] so I put in Susan Donovan’s daughter saying ‘You’ve got 50 Shades of Grey on your Kindle!’ and she goes, ‘Heck yeah!’ I didn’t want anyone to think I’m not aware that phenomenon happened.
Do you think books like that getting mainstream attention is helping or hindering the genre?
LK: I think a lot of people who are in the community are torn on 50 Shades because it is so popular that it has made people talk about romance and look at it. But it’s also not an especially well edited or well-written book. They would love it if the book that had made it was representative of the best of romance. [Books like 50 Shades] can reinforce stereotypes that romance is not well-written. But they’re happy that romance is visible now, and it’s part of the culture.
A book like Outlander might be more helpful to the community, right? That’s more in line with the well-written romance and strong characters you’re speaking of.
LK: Absolutely. I would totally agree. I just never met Diana Gabaldon. If I had, she might have been a main character. She is part of the community that I’m looking at.
[Diana] would have been an interesting choice. I mean, my uber star was Nora Roberts, who is in the film.
Do you think the popularity of this Outlander TV series could help defeat the stigma attached to romance?
LK: With time, maybe.
I don’t think that series is going to get rid of the stigma, but many women told me stories of reading a book on the train, or on the beach, and complete strangers would come up and say, ‘You read that trash?’ That wouldn’t happen to a guy reading Stephen King, or someone reading a mystery or a David Baldacci book. It just wouldn’t. And people feel entitled to say that to women.
I think, deep down, anything that’s for women, by women and about women is thought to be inferior. It’s a deep issue in our culture that doesn’t change overnight. I hope people leave the theatre when they see my film thinking, ‘God, I was really prejudiced,’ and realize how pervasive this prejudice is and think twice about their prejudice.
Is there a community similar to this for you as a female filmmaker? Do you feel there is a support system in place for other women in the industry to help each other out?
LK: My last film was about the early years of Tupperware and I have to say that there are lot of similarities between the way the two communities work to really bring people up between the ranks. There’s just a sense of belonging. I don’t know that there’s anything comparable with female filmmakers. I wish there was.
I mean, there are organizations of women filmmakers and they have workshops and events. But you don’t see famous female filmmakers taking trips with their fans. There’s nothing like that in the community.
Should there be more of a connection between female filmmakers and female fans?
LK: Or even between female filmmakers!
The problem is, we’re also so busy and independent-minded. But if there were a way to create social links as well as professional links, it would be terrific. It’s a really good question. I’m going to have to start pondering it!
So would you say there are still limitations to being a female filmmaker? Would you like some more support specifically for women in the industry?
LK: I think that would be terrific. But you know there are some really prominent female documentary filmmakers. I think it’s really hard to make it as a feature, a fictional film as a woman.
I think it’s hard in the documentary world to get money when your subject is a female. I think if you’re doing a film about female genital mutilation in Africa, you can get funding. But something like my film, which seems fluffy at first sight, people dismiss it because they dismiss what women are doing and they dismiss the idea of a film about it. The same thing happened with my Tupperware film about the women who built an empire.
So, it is tough and I think that’s about really deep attitudes in the culture. It’s going to take a while, but the more really interesting women’s stories that are told, the more people will be open to them.
What’s next for you? Just promoting the film?
LK: That’s the immediate thing that’s next. Promoting the distribution in all sorts of different avenues: Video on Demand, broadcast, educational markets, DVD and all that. And also getting ready to, when it’s broadcast, rolling out this library program that we’re going to do.
But I’m also, in the back of my mind I always have project ideas. [I’m] letting them simmer on the back burner and starting to put out my feelers when I talk to distributors about this one to see if there’s interest.
Are any of these other ideas female-focused?
LK: All of them are female-focused! [Laughs]
I really do think it’s important to tell women’s stories! It’s kind of my mission, I guess, to give a voice to women who normally don’t get listened to.
Emily is covering the 2015 Hot Docs Film Festival live from Toronto. Check out more Hot Docs reviews here.