Upon meeting Sabrina Jeffries, it may be hard to tell that she is living a double life. Jeffries, who showed up to our interview in a bright, flowing turquoise blouse, white capris and a warm smile, seems to be your average middle-aged woman. She glows when talking about her husband of 23 years and their 18-year-old autistic son. She's a fan of Evanescence. She reads Jane Austen. She tries to get on the treadmill as often as she can, and she spends too much time on Wikipedia.
Who could know that behind that sweet, carefully lipsticked smile lurks a mind with thoughts scandalous enough to make your toes curl? Jeffries lives part time in suburban reality and part time in her lascivious fictions. Her most recent effort, Beware a Scot's Revenge, spent two weeks earlier this year on The New York Times paperback best-seller list and five weeks on USA Today's list, in the company of Stephen King and other stalwarts.
Considering that she has a doctorate in English from Tulane University, the fact that she should write novels may not seem particularly shocking. Her work has been described as many things, so perhaps we should be more descriptive. However, she makes one clear exception:
"Don't use 'bodice-ripper,'" she says as a jocular warning. "We hate that."
Jeffries writes historical-fiction romance novels, the politically correct term for what literary critics dismiss as trash. Though it sometimes irks her that genre writing doesn't garner much respect in the literary community, she says she doesn't need their approval.
"I was in that literary community and I don't feel any burning urge to be back there," she states. "I spent years and years being very intellectual, reading all this sophisticated fiction, but I like romance!
"It's not that I don't appreciate the others, but it's not what I'm going to if I've had a bad day. I need something that will touch my heart!"
While Jeffries doesn't disregard the virtues of Serious Literature, the existential and material discontent associated with such works doesn't appeal to the self-proclaimed optimist. She doesn't see the world as such, which she attributes to her upbringing as the daughter of missionaries.
That's right: The author of books such as To Pleasure a Prince, Never Seduce a Scoundrel and In the Prince's Bed grew up in Thailand with a strong Christian background. An avid reader as a child, she began reading romance as an undergrad at Louisiana College while struggling to define herself outside of her sheltered childhood, which also led to her interest in modernist literature.
"I was dealing with my upbringing. When my professors introduced me, it was always, 'Her parents are missionaries, but she's not like that,'" Jeffries says of her struggle to be taken seriously in the academic setting.
After grad school, she began to extend a paper she had written on James Joyce, and that's when it happened: She snapped. Instead of writing the critical work she had set out to publish in hopes of becoming a professor, she wrote her first romance novel, which, though she says it "will never see the light of day," allowed her to discover her true literary passion.
And that's how she became Sabrina Jeffries: tech editor by day, sexy novelist by night. To date, she's published 25 novels and turns out a new book about every nine months. She's reached The New York Times' extended best-seller list six times and is rising in the ranks of romance novelist fame. In fact, she just returned from the Romance Writers of America Conference in Dallas, where she met many of her fans.
"The ones that kill me are the ones that are trembling. I was that person 10 years ago! But I do get a little alarmed when I get a letter from a 14-year-old."
And rightfully so, as her books are frequently and unabashedly prurient. "Sex should be something that is enjoyed, not hidden or swept under the table," Jeffries says. She jokes that she might be missing the TMI (Too Much Information) gene ("Nothing grosses me out!"), which frees her to use a more vivid vocabulary than some romance writers.
"I use words some writers wouldn't, like 'cock.' But I'm still not writing erotica in any sense," she says. She deftly cozies up to the line between sensual and crass by using terms that are period-appropriate. She owns a book of sexual slang and euphemisms, but she has her boundaries. "'Sugar-stick' is never going into one of my books," she says.
Besides her dirty thesaurus, Jeffries' writing is also inspired by her life. Her latest work draws on the Regency period, with characters that are restricted by society's expectations. As the child of missionaries, Jeffries similarly felt limited by the rigid formality and the emphasis on keeping up appearances.
"If we said 'I'm just stuffed' after dinner, my mother would correct us: 'I have dined sufficiently,'" she says.
She also finds inspiration in her previous love life. "I put old boyfriends who dumped me in as villains," she says, giggling. However, she insists that the juicier parts are found "all in the imagination."
Come on, really?
"Well, I am married," Jeffries says slyly. "But I've never done it on a swing."