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Interview with Rob Costello, "Coinage of Commitment"
Born in Philadelphia, Rob Costelloe started writing fiction at age eight. He began writing science fiction, but after high school, his writing interests changed. While attending Drexel University, he composed a series of novellas, most of them love stories set against the backdrop of World War II. After college, besides pursuing an engineering career in the Gulf Coast region, he wrote more stories, a teeth-cutting, first novel, and a little poetry. While writing “Coinage of Commitment,” his interest focused on the question of what romantic love can achieve in people’s lives. Rob and his wife live near Houston, Texas.
Tyler: Welcome, Rob. I’m glad you could join me today. First I have to ask, what made you become interested in romantic love as an author?
Rob: Thank you, Tyler; it’s nice to be here. As far as romantic love is concerned, it’s something I’ve been interested in since childhood. Then when I was a freshman in college, I met a girl who took my breath, and my heart, away. Years later, even after marriage, a child, a demanding career path, I realized that we still had the magic, still measured life by the time we spent together. At that point, I had a humbling realization. Even though I prided myself on having studied romantic love for a long time, it was my wife who was teaching me how to keep it fresh through the years. I started writing my first novel partly to give something back, to let readers know that love could reach a higher level and that it could be nourished through time as something worthwhile and satisfying.
Tyler: Have you felt any awkwardness as a male romance writer in what is generally considered the territory of female authors?
Rob: For me, it was probably the opposite. From the very start of my query campaign, I aimed my letters and sample chapters at women editors. Then, once I got into the game and realized that my end of the publishing industry was heavily dominated by women, I felt relieved. If anything, being a man may have given me a certain advantage, you know, from a novelty standpoint. Not only was I a male engineer (of all things!), with no detectable writing credentials, daring to show up with a love story, but I was touting it as a love story unlike any other. Well, at least it made them look up from their keyboards. Even from across the vast Internet, I could feel their skeptical smiles.
I did have advantages related to temperament. Women have always been my epitome of beauty, and I have long admired the feminine spirit and disposition, the nobility of her biological calling, the sophistication and elegance of her romantic impulses. As a result, I have always worked well with women. Plus I am grateful. So much of what I learned about romantic love I learned from a woman, namely my wife.
The other advantage I had was acquired: I had studied love stories for years and I knew the intricacies and challenges of the genre. At one point, an editor who was intrigued by my sample chapters started an e-mail conversation that escalated to a phone discussion. I knew this was curiosity bringing opportunity to my door. She was a Romance novelist as well as a Romance editor, so I was nervous as I dialed her office number. I could tell that she was surprised then delighted to meet a man who could discuss nuances of love story plot and characterization ranging from risk factors in portraying heroines as less than physically perfect, to pet theories for best lead up to denouement. I knew before the conversation was over that she would offer a contract. Although it was not one I ended up accepting, the bonds of respect we forged has led to an enduring mentoring relationship that she has been gracious enough to provide.
Tyler: What viewpoint did you write the novel from, first or third? Did you have difficulty getting into the mind of the female character to make her believable?
Rob: My early writing, including my first novel, was first person. For “Coinage,” I made the switch to third person, and I am glad I did. For the female character portrayals, I relied heavily on love stories and romances I had read that were written by women. Even with that, I consulted with some women friends, not on the characterizations themselves, but on how they thought a woman would react emotionally in certain situations. I also got womanly help with clothes and grooming issues, for instance, the outfits that Nancy wears for the various social engagements.
Tyler: I understand for a long time you were interested in romantic love, but a specific reading experience led to the creation of “Coinage of Commitment.” Will you share how the book was created?
Rob: Well, as you mentioned in your intro, I wrote earlier in life, including an unpublishable first novel; then I abandoned writing altogether. But I continued to study romantic love, and I enjoyed studying love stories in books and films. In 2005 I read an otherwise well written novel whose denouement was so suddenly despairing that I felt outrage on behalf of all the women readers who were disappointed by this disjointed outcome. Within twenty-four hours, I was writing “Coinage of Commitment.” The first draft took four months of nearly full-time effort. Since I was also holding a full-time day job, that meant I got very little sleep. I queried awhile, then sat down and read the manuscript after not having looked at it for two months. I was shocked to discover that it was not the greatest love story ever written, and that it suddenly became important to me that it be that good. I know this sounds delusional, and it did to me even as I was thinking it, but it did affect my actions in a major way. I pulled the manuscript off the market and went into what turned out to be seven months of editorial analyses, rewrites, and polishing revisions. I even changed my writing style to be more in tune with the story’s artistic needs. After that, it was back to the tedious grind of querying. But this time I did hit gold, garnering three contract offers from royalty publishers.
Tyler: Did you look for an editor to help you with your work? What difficulties as a first-time published novelist, did you have with the editing process?
Rob: I did hire an independent New York editor to help pinpoint issues for the rewrite I planned when I pulled the manuscript out of the first query campaign. I wanted to make sure that I had all the issues identified. That led to an eight week rewrite effort that was a turning point in the project. I acted on about half of the editorial recommendations, plus I made many new revisions of my own, including creation of a new minor character (a cousin for Nancy), as well as a major chapter reorganization. Then, because I wanted the manuscript to be the best that it could be, I went back to the same editor for another analysis. She gave me a much higher grade this time, and that led to a rewrite that only took two weeks. Then, still obsessed with manuscript quality, I contracted a second editor, a Canadian, who did a third analysis, and she also copyedited the manuscript. This round resulted in only minor revisions. Well, by this time, I had learned a lot about editing from some fine professionals. I restarted a query campaign, but I also performed about eight rounds of polishing revisions. This was mainly the bending of my style that I mentioned earlier to better meet the needs of the story.
By the time my Saga Books editor got the manuscript, it had been through about five rounds of the polishing revisions. She declared the manuscript the best prepared she had ever seen and sent it back to me without a single mark. In a fit of artistic benevolence, she committed to holding the presses until I finished my editorial work. It took until round eight or so until I could read the manuscript without changing a single word (well almost!).
I was equally obsessed with the book’s cover, and again, Saga was a dream to work with. They stood back while I spent six weeks going through thousands of commercially available images to find that one picture that best distills the book’s artistic statement. My wife did the photographic editing we needed, including scanning and photographically adding the coin image. The overall product was intended as a unified artistic statement between the cover image that the buyer first sees and the contents within the book itself.
Tyler: I can understand why you were obsessed about the book cover, and you ended up with very attractive cover as a result. Rob, as you mentioned, the work you objected to that inspired “Coinage of Commitment” had a tragic or negative ending. Do you feel romance novels have to have happy endings?
Rob: Most of the romances I’ve read tend to have happy endings. Love stories are more likely to be suspenseful in how they turn out. I think tragic endings are okay so long as they are meaningful and you prepare your readers for what is up ahead. The book that outraged me enough to resume writing did so because the novelist brought the reader along to think that the lovers had a good chance for a fulfilling denouement. Instead, in the very last paragraph, like a bolt out of the blue, she has the male protagonist commit suicide and the female lead facing old age in despair. I was appalled.
Tyler: Tell us about the lovers in the story. I understand it’s a story of lovers who are from different classes in society.
Rob: Yes, Wayne and Nancy have many differences between them, and much of the story deals with how these differences are overcome, how the lovers adjust themselves for the success of their romantic commitment. But what draws them together from the very start, in addition to physical attraction, is that they both hunger for a quality of romantic love that’s superior to the rundown, worn-out relationships they see in couples all around them. For each of them, growing up on opposite sides of the country, it has to be different, it has to be better, and it has to last. How each of them develops this craving for higher love, how it shapes them, how it makes them different from their peers, is a significant part of the story.
Tyler: How did you depict Nancy and Wayne’s family backgrounds, and especially their parents’ relationships? Did they have happily married parents and did this affect their determination to have a higher love for themselves?
Rob: Nancy’s privileged upbringing does not spare her the unhappiness of watching her parents’ relationship deteriorate and barely survive an affair by her father. This trauma provides stimulus to her quest for achieving a much better romantic fulfillment for herself. The trigger for Wayne is less traumatic, involving a move from a blue collar urban environment, in which his time and attention are taken up by the parochial school roughnecks he has grown up with, to a suburban setting in which he has many acquaintances, few friends, and much time on his hands for inner reflection and letting his long suppressed sensitive side emerge. It is this metamorphosis that shapes him into such a unique character, at once competitively tough yet aesthetically drawn to some feminine ideal, one he secretly yearns for in love, but is helpless to do much about until he meets Nancy. She’s the one who has developed higher love-she calls it Aesthetic Love-into an organized system. He is drawn to her because her beauty is tinged with a certain sadness that deeply touches him. Nancy is initially bowled over by his courage in the incident that gets them introduced. Later she realizes that he shares her dream of experiencing a love unlike any other, one that transcends the bounds that the rest of us take for granted.
Tyler: What makes “Coinage of Commitment” stand out from other tales of star-crossed lovers such as Romeo and Juliet?
Rob: I don’t know of any other love story where the lovers are determined to achieve a union that’s superior to what the rest of the world experiences, and they’re prepared to use intellectual and behavioral means to keep it flying high into the future. Nancy takes the lead in this process. It’s her system of intellectualizing love that magnifies its emotional fulfillment and strengthens its spiritual bonding. She leads Wayne along the path, adapting a system she developed as a teenager to the real world conditions of sharing intimacy with flesh and blood Wayne. Unexpectedly, and paradoxically as well, their romantic ambitions make the union they seek more difficult to achieve in a real life situation where they have so many differences between them and they have to overcome opposition from both families. But when they achieve their destination-however short a time fate may allow them to stay there-they know that there is nothing like them recorded in any book in any library. They revel in knowing that they have no one else to compare themselves to in terms of the union they’ve achieved.
Tyler: Rob, will you give us an example or further information about Nancy’s system of intellectualizing love?
Rob: Let me give you a description. She starts out collecting bullet items she calls precepts. I didn’t want to bog the book down by listing too many of these, but two of the four or five that are mentioned are: be prepared to give more than you receive; and go the extra mile to stay attractive to your mate as a statement of love’s constancy. Later she explores and collects higher concepts she calls issues. The one I have in the story is the Freedom Versus Possession Balance Issue, stated by Nancy as follows: how do you hold your beloved to you to satisfy yourself, but still give him enough freedom to be himself, to go on being the person you fell for to begin with? Finally, after years more study and thinking, she comes up with a higher principle she calls the missing piece. I won’t go over it in detail here, but it is a way she feels she can align the knowledge of her system in a way that fuels emotion, potentially giving her the means to keep love fresh into the future. She’s only a high schooler when she comes up with this, so she doesn’t realize that things will be harder than she thinks and that batteries are not included.
Tyler: Why did you choose to set the story during the 1960s?
Rob: Mainly because I knew the period first hand and could minimize the research requirements on a project that statistically only had about a one-in-three hundred chance of achieving publication by a royalty press. Then too, the sixties has long had a certain cachet for readers and moviegoers alike. That generation had an optimism that seemed to defy gravity. So the idea that a couple from this particular age group would try to fly the highest love ever flown seemed in keeping with the spirit of the times.
Tyler: The sixties were also known as a time of “free love” and ever since then, love and sex have been mixed together and confused. Do you pay much attention to sex in “Coinage of Commitment” and what is its place in building a higher love?
Rob: Sex is an important part of the intimacy that a couple experiences, plus we are all affected by the sexual forces that flow within us. A story of this intensity would be a dry reed indeed without adequate treatment of sex as part of the lovers’ ultimate triumph. Plus sexual experiences affect character development in crucial ways that I don’t think can be bypassed in a good story. But it needs to be tastefully treated. I am always guided by a quote I once read in an issue of “Redbook” magazine. It was from a Midwest housewife, and she said that if God made anything more beautiful than sex, then he kept it to himself.
Tyler: What about romantic novels and especially “Coinage of Commitment” do you think appeals to readers?
Rob: Many readers of love stories are demanding critics who evaluate the story, its characters, their motivations, how believable they are, and these readers are especially keen on evaluating the decisions of the characters, much more so than readers of other genre. I think that the pleasure of such “what if” analysis is a special bonus that love stories offer serious readers.
Tyler: Rob, you studied many romantic works, both in film and literature, while preparing to write “Coinage of Commitment.” Did you come to any great understandings or beliefs about the nature of love and its abilities or the greatest level of love that can be achieved?
Rob: Well, I sure tried, and most of what I learned I plowed into “Coinage of Commitment” as Nancy’s precepts of Aesthetic Love. As far as the ultimate altitude love is capable of achieving, that is explored in the novel through the sacrifices that the lovers are willing to make for each other. Wayne, for instance, is willing to drop out of school in order to support Nancy’s acting career. But the highest altitude achieved in the book comes later, and it awaits the reader as part of the surprise ending on the last two pages.
Tyler: I read on Amazon a review where the reviewer complained that “Coinage of Commitment” wasn’t longer, so she was demanding another book-always a good sign for an author. Do you have plans for any future novels?
Rob: Yes, I’m about half way through drafting my next project, also a love story, this one set in a contemporary timeframe. My publisher, Saga Books, has already agreed to consider the manuscript, and that’s a major load off my mind as I write.
Tyler: May I ask if you have used any personal romantic experiences to develop the story, or is it completely fiction?
Rob: The current story, code named “Cameo,” is a longer, more intricate fiction than anything I’ve attempted. “Coinage of Commitment” was intended to be compelling for the romantic forces set in motion in the first few pages. Cameo aims to build romantic suspense around a group of characters who grow up in Hanover, Pennsylvania, then go to college at the University of Pennsylvania.
Tyler: Thank you, Rob, for joining me today.
Rob: And thank you, Tyler, for this opportunity to reach out to readers.
Tyler: Thank you, Rob. I’m sure you’ll have many interested readers who want to learn more about what a higher love entails.
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