Daisy Cummins was about 11 years old when she picked up her first romance novel.
First, it was titles by Jackie Collins and Jilly Cooper. Later, rummaging around in her nan’s bedroom during a summer in Kerry, she discovered Mills & Boon.
“I was drawn to romance, for all its angst and passion,” she said recently, over tea in the dining room of her home in Rialto, a terrace house with eclectic furniture.
“Growing up as a child I was obsessed with stories about revenge and blackmailing,” she says.
Her love affair with romance novels continued into her adult life. But it wasn’t until her late 20s that she thought about writing them herself, she says.
A flatmate, with whom she would read Mills & Boon, announced that they were considering submitting a story to the famous publishing house.
“So I said, why not?” says Cummins.
In 2006, at 33, Cummins published her first story.
That was with Harlequin, which owns Mills & Boon. Chosen By The Frenchman’s Bride, it was called.
“It was about this English woman going on holiday to France meeting this gorgeous French guy. A classic Mills & Boon story,” she says.
Now, she’s ramped up the titles.
She writes three or four novels on average a year for Mills & Boon from her home office in the inner suburb of Dublin.
She works alongside her cockapoo Orwell, his name inspired by her library stocked with numerous titles by George Orwell.
She went through an Orwell phase as a teenager, she says. “But I didn’t have a clue what I was reading at the time.”
“When it’s going well it’s nice,” she says, of working from home. “But most of the time you’re procrastinating and struggling to write 500 words.”
Inspiration comes from all over. “It could be a commercial, a picture in a magazine, or reading someone else’s book,” she says.
“It could even be as simple as, ‘Okay, I want to do a marriage of convenience for the next story.’ ”
From her desk in her home office, she explores the globe through Google Maps and travel books, researching the settings, getting a feel for other worlds.
At the end of a long table in Cummins’ dining room sits a single white card: “Abby Green Congratulations on your 50th book.”
Abby Green is Cummins’ pen name
“I had a romantic whim of wanting a pseudonym,” she says. I thought it was cool and glamorous.”
Romance is an enormous genre, says Jarlath Killeen, head of the School of English at Trinity College Dublin.
“It’s actually the most successful genre around,” says Killeen, who runs a module in popular literature that often covers romance novels.
In the United States, romance is a billion-dollar industry.
“The last figures that I could find of romance generated 1.44bn, and the nearest genre was crime which was 728 million, so we’re talking about a billion-dollar industry vs million-dollar industry,” he says.
Over there, Cummins’ books are in the top 100 for romance every month, she says. “This month, we’re selling 5,000 to 6,000 books.”
She doesn’t know too much about the Irish market, she says. “I think in Ireland they sell really well, but they don’t really get included with the other books in lists and things like that.”
Cummins’ books get published in 28 languages, she says.
Dozens of copies in French, Italian, and Japanese are packed alongside kitsch religious ornaments on overflowing shelves in her downstairs bathroom.
She pulls out one colourful title translated into Japanese and made into a manga cartoon. It roughly translates as Ruthless Greek Boss, Secretary Mistress.
“I just got that in the post, I didn’t even know it was happening,” says Cummins.
Cummins still gets quizzed by people asking: “When are you going to write a real book?”
The literary snobbery doesn’t seem to faze her. “I enjoy writing stories about relationships,” she says.
Her mother, a huge reader, passed away in 1999. Cummins was 25.
“I think she would have been delighted,” says Cummins. “She was a big feminist. She would have been one of the first of the female reporters in the Irish Times in the 70s, doing all the things to break down the doors.”
Past market research suggests most readers of romance are white and women, and between the ages of 30 to 44 years old.
But Cummins says that her readers are “really diverse”. She gets emails from “18-year-old girls in Indonesia and 60-year-old women in midwestern America”.
She struck up an email correspondence with a retired librarian in southern England, she says. “She tells me all about her life. She just loves the books. She loves the escapism.”
Cummins’ favourite themes are blackmail, secret affairs, and stolen brides.
The Brazilian’s Blackmail Bargain. The Maid’s Best Kept Secret. A Christmas Bride for the King. Stories of trysts and passion set far from Rialto in the Middle East and South America.
Over the years, Mills & Boon books have mirrored what’s going on in society, says Cummins.
In the 70s and 80s, it was holiday romance and Corfu. That reflected a time when people began to vacation more abroad, she says.
Nowadays, the books can deal with more delicate matters, she says. Like depression and addiction.
She rifles through her dusty blue bookshelves, and pulls out Redeemed by His Stolen Bride, about a woman being fought over by two billionaires.
On the cover a tall attractive man looks ahead. A woman embraces and caresses his cheek.
“Some people might be embarrassed to buy a book with two people on the cover but I don’t see the issue,” says Cummins. “It’s just another thing to put women down.”
Romance had a bad rap in literary circles. “It’s seen as frivolous and light, as if you’re reading about love and relationships it’s not real fiction,” she says.
But “the love story has always been central to the novel tradition. Love stories are basically what novels are about,” says Killeen of TCD.
Take Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice which set the template for the contemporary romance genre, he says.
Yet, there’s still a discernible disdain for the genre rooted in the belief that it “concerns matters that are in the domestic sphere”, says Killeen.
According to Killeen, some of the most trenchant criticism leveled at Mills & Boon books, and indeed the romance genre as a whole, has come from women.
In particular, from second-wave feminists. “It was an outright assault in its existence,” he says.
In Germaine Greer’s 1970s treatise on womanhood, The Female Eunuch,there’s a large chunk of the book attacking the romance genre.
“She associates reading romance with imprisonment and entrapment [of women],” says Killeen.
Aoife Bhreatnach, an independent historian and host of an Irish podcast, Censored, looking at banned books, says that while romance books are widely derided because of cultural snobbery, the mainstream stuff is still quite heteronormative and conservative.
“Everyone ends up married sort of thing. There’s no open relationships or swinging or things like that,” she says.
Structurally, romance novels tend to follow a simple formula, says Cummins. “There’s always a happy ever after.”
The story becomes about the obstacles that each character has to face before they can eventually be together.
“The woman who read these book don’t want to read about awkward sex, they want the fantasy of meeting a stranger and having the most amazing one-night stand of your life,” says Cummins.
Another concern of second-wave feminists, says Killeen, was that they were convinced that the reader of the genre internalised the conventions of the genre.
The problem here is “that you’re simply not giving enough credit to people’s ability to distinguish fantasy lives and their everyday reality”, he says.
For Cummins, the accusation that the books give women unrealistic expectations make her angry. “Because if anyone knows about expectation and reality, it’s women.”
She writes books about consenting relationships between two consenting adults, she says. “What’s unrealistic about that?”