Mary Bly (a.k.a. Eloisa James) Talks to TIME About Her Literary Double Life

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Bryan Derballa

By day, Mary Bly is a highly credentialed (Harvard, Oxford, Yale) Shakespearean scholar and professor at Fordham University. But when no one is looking, she transforms herself into Eloisa James, author of 21 romance novels, 17 of them New York Times bestsellers. Under her nom de plume, she has 6 million books and e-books in print in more than 20 countries. Bly’s multiple roles don’t end there: she is also the daughter of award-winning poet Robert Bly and the late writer Carol Bly, the wife of Alessandro Vettori—the chair of Rutgers’ Italian department—and the mother of two teenagers.

But Bly gives workaholics a good name: she is an upbeat, tall, willowy blonde who lives in a spacious Manhattan apartment across the street from Columbia University, complete with high ceilings, endless bookshelves and Oriental rugs. She’s had her fair share of turmoil: at the end of 2007, her mother died after a battle with ovarian cancer; two weeks later, Bly was diagnosed with breast cancer. In an attempt to cope with these heartaches—and to “capture the acute beauty of life”—Bly took her family to live in Paris for a sabbatical year.

The result is her first work of nonfiction, a rich new memoir, Paris in Love. Publishers Weekly called it an “effervescent diary,” giving it a starred review. Like her romance novels, Bly wrote the book as Eloisa James (not surprisingly, given her huge bookstore popularity). TIME spent a morning with the author, who is now in remission, chatting and drinking tea in her sunny breakfast nook.

Why Paris?

I loved Paris. I was there during college and I had pictures—etchings—up on my wall when I was 13. I just thought it would be wonderful, and I wanted this escape.

How did your family feel about going to France?

We’re so afraid of things, but we don’t have to be afraid. We rented an apartment on the Internet. I didn’t speak any French. The children didn’t speak any French. Alessandro spoke, but he didn’t need it. It wasn’t as scary as it sounds. It can be done.

You write that your mother never approved of you as a romance novelist.

No, I remember she was still in home hospice, dying of ovarian cancer, and my siblings and I were flying home every weekend to be with her. She was lying on the couch and I was sitting next to her…and she said, “You’re going to write a real novel. You’re going to write a real book in five years.” And you know what? Paris in Love is coming out five years after her death. She would be so happy with Paris in Love because it was in the New York Times. She would just think that was cat’s meow.

(LIST: The All-TIME 100 Nonfiction Books)

Your father, poet Robert Bly, was always more supportive.

When my dad wrote Iron John, people said right away, ‘You’re a National Book Award winner. How can you write this trash?’ And he was like, ‘Well, but I like that, and I like this.’ So for him it was very easy to accept that I wanted to write something different.

When did you first become a romance novelist?

I wrote my first romance novel in 1985, and it was turned down by every conceivable publisher, including the Sierra Club. At that point, I’d decided to be an academic.

What attracted you to the genre?

That’s what I love. That’s what I was reading. My taste has always been for romance, and if I look back at the first plays I wrote—which my siblings would perform—they were all romances. My sister would only be a princess, so there was always a princess. My mother couldn’t get around the fact that I wouldn’t try and be Chaucer or Dostoyevsky. She thought if you have talent, then you know you have to use it to better mankind. But my talent is a kind that doesn’t involve changing America’s view of war. So that was hard for her to accept.

Your secret dual-identity life is remarkable. How did that start?

It started because I was untenured. I wrote my first book, Potent Pleasures, in order to pay off my student loan, and found such pleasure in writing it. The contract was for three books. People magazine named the second book a page-turner of the week. And I went to my chair—I had then moved to Fordham—and I said, ‘People magazine would like to run a picture of me.’ And he said, ‘You can’t do that. You won’t get tenure.’ Once that happened, I really did keep the lives separate.

When did that end?

I got tenure and I hit the New York Times list. It was important to me that I prove myself not only by getting tenure but also by being a full member of the department, being able to run two careers and do my share. When that had happened, I realized if I keep this secret, it’s as if I’m ashamed of it, and that’s implicitly shaming my readers, right? I decided this is not good, so I came out.

What was the reaction?

I think my peers were fine with it. Academics don’t tend to read romance novels. I don’t actually think there’s a single person in my department who’s read one.

(MORE: Andrea Sachs on the Rise of the Cowboy Romance Novel)

How did you get all of that work done? You must not get very much sleep.

My parents were both workaholics, so it came easily to me. My mother worked. She had a column. She was writing short stories. My dad was a poet and making money as a poet, which meant he was always on the road going to universities. It comes naturally to me to think that part of what I do in the world has got to be creating things.

Would I be right in thinking that you’re a writer who enjoys writing? That you’re not a tortured artist?

I’m happy when I’m writing. I’m a tortured academic. Academic work is hard.

Why are romance novels so underappreciated, so trounced upon, despite their popularity?

I think part of it is sexism. The literary establishment has been controlled by men for many, many years, and this is a genre that is read entirely by women. There’s a real uneasiness about the erotic content of romance. I think people are afraid that women will become aroused. Look at all of this attention Fifty Shades of Grey is getting. I think for a long time, there was the idea that the women who wrote romance were really stupid and wrote for stupid people. And that was never the case. Never.