Happy Endings

Harvard grad ditches med school to romance the masses

Never underestimate the infinite wisdom of the Harvard Coop. Julia Pottinger ’92 makes that mistake. She’s a best-selling author who was just featured in Time magazine as a trendsetter, but is pretty sure that the Coop won’t deign to stock her books. At least in her day, they wouldn’t. “Oh, when I was [at Harvard] I always had to go to Kendall,” she says.

Pottinger writes romance novels. When she was in college, she trekked to Kendall to feed her paperback bodice-ripper habit. “I wasn’t much of partier,” she says. “It was how I unwound.”

Perhaps in a nod to consumer demand—Time reports that 51 million Americans read romance novels—today’s Coop stocks plenty of Pottinger. Except that in print, she is Julia Quinn, a shrewdly chosen pen name meant to place her titles next to the popular Amanda Quick. These days, Quinn titles don’t need help from alphabetization to fly off the shelves. Romancing Mr. Bridgerton, her June 2002 release, was named one of the top ten Favorite Books of the year in an annual poll by Romance Writers of America. Her New York Times best-seller The Further Observations of Lady Whistledown is shelved at the Coop right in the main literature section.

Popular culture abounds with Harvard references, with inside humor employed most famously in “The Simpsons.” Julia Quinn’s novels have a Mr. Pennypacker. That’s where she lived freshman year, and if one intended to enshrine things in romance, Pottinger’s first year at Harvard is not a bad choice.

Her story is too good to be true. It’s one of those. The freshman outdoor program (FOP) is involved, as is the freshman union. In all the milling about before the orientation trips set off for the woods, Pottinger met a girl with whom she became friendly. This girl later broke her arm on FOP. Pottinger and her wounded friend were dining in the freshman union when they both recognized their FOP leaders, who turned out to be roommates. “One day I called Jeremy [her FOP leader] for dinner and his roommate said, ‘Oh, maybe Paul will go with you,’” she says. Paul is now her husband.

“It was basically the first time in my life I was not looking for a boyfriend,” she says of freshman week. “If I could plan it, I could meet him a year later. But at that point I wasn’t going to break up with him to just to see other people.”

Though Pottinger didn’t get to meticulously script her own love story, she now spends her life planning passions for other people—people she’s created, people admired by a growing segment of the romance-reading population.

Pottinger and her FOP-leader freshman week boyfriend are now married and the parents of a 3-year-old girl and all has ended happily. But the reaction from her parents to the news of their daughter’s serious relationship so early in college is somewhat surprising, in an antiquated way. “At first my parents thought I was too young,” she says, “but it was 1988 and AIDS had just come into the public consciousness in a big way. Once my parents grasped what AIDS meant, they thought it was a good thing. They said, ‘Oh yeah, of course you should stay with him.’”

Interestingly, this awareness of the public consciousness as it relates to romance is Pottinger’s specialty—sort of. Her books are set in “Regency England,” a time and place seemingly constructed solely for mass marketed paperbacks, reminiscent of Sense and Sensibility, but with snappier comebacks. Still, her themes are universal, and have proved more relevant to younger readers than those of her predecessors. Her heroines are not perfect. Penelope Featherington, the central character in Bridgerton, is delicately described as “plump” and “shy,” yet she gets the guy in the end. Pottinger says this wallflower tale comes from her high school experience. Amazon customer reviews and reader e-mails attest that it was their high school experience as well, hence her mass appeal.

Something else is appealing. Not for readers, who she says don’t care very much at all about her educational background, but for the general public. She believes she was singled out for the Time profile and other publicity because of the Ivy League-meets-Regency factor. “You find this romance novelist whose gone to Harvard and Yale, and that makes you as an entity more understandable,” Pottinger says.

Recalling her time at Harvard, Pottinger confesses to lounging in the Yard one day with a romance novel in hand and fudging the truth a bit when an acquaintance inquired about her reading material. “Oh, it’s just some book,” she said at the time. This honest feeling that pulp fiction and the academy are mutually exclusive entities is something Pottinger continues to challenge.

She has never shied away from mentioning her educational background for fear of alienating anyone. “I put it in there because I’m proud of it. I worked hard,” she says. Apart from what her education means to most of her readers (not much, she concludes) Pottinger hints that it is also important for her, on some level, that she has Harvard and Yale credentials. “Maybe just because of my background, most people do go on to grad school, and I decided not to, it is some validating thing,” she says. She quickly adds, however, that “I’m very successful and very well compensated,” lest anyone forget what this industry is about in addition to wallflower heroines finally falling into the arms of dashing Mr. Right.

Pottinger herself has written on the topic of higher education in the romance field, in her bi-monthly column in the Romance Writer’s Report, unusually named “Tiger Beat.” Pottinger makes it clear that she inherited the name, that she has nothing to do with it, and that it has nothing to do with the teen pin-up rag. This soapbox, from which she says she may retire imminently, allowed her to respond publicly to a Publisher’s Weekly round-up of popular romance novelists. In a piece entitled “Write Fiercely, Harvard” she balked at an editor’s smug and incredulous announcement that a Harvard grad wrote romance novels. “I don’t think that writing talent has much to do with where one went to school, or the number of degrees on one’s business card, but I do get a bit bristly at the implication that romance authors couldn’t possibly be smart enough to get into an Ivy League school,” she wrote then. She points out that three other authors mentioned in the Publisher’s Weekly piece went to Harvard and then gamely suggests that Harvard romance writers have “enough for a basketball team.”

It’s not like she learned anything in particular in school that applies directly to her craft. “I took Expos,” she says. That is the extent of her study of writing in any formal way. She concentrated in art history, thought about architecture, and then at the end of her senior year decided that medicine “sounded good.” Something else sounded better, though.

The summer after her junior year, Pottinger lived in Cambridge and sold ads for Let’s Go. It was on her daily “T” ride from her Boston apartment to work where she decided that she would give romance writing a try.

“I started fooling around. I wrote about four chapters,” she says. Inspiration was never really the problem—Pottinger says she always knew she could write, she just needed to find the time. She found the time sooner than most of her publishing peers—she had an agent and editor in her early twenties—and this early success is part of her appeal. “I have a lot of teenage readers and readers in their early twenties. My writing style appeals to them. And if they look at my picture on the back of the book, they don’t see someone who looks like their mother,” she says.

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