Two adjacent rows on Laura Schmidt Denlinger’s living room bookshelf tell you everything you need to know about their owner.
One row features deathly serious tomes about international public policy, with titles like The Second Nuclear Age: Strategy, Danger, and the New Power Politics. Right below are scores of romance and erotica titles, including several she wrote, such as a proof copy of her most recent release, Interstellar Angel, a futuristic sci-fi tale about a woman in a polyamorous relationship with various men.
By day, Denlinger works as a senior counterproliferation adviser for a United States government agency, while pursuing a Ph.D. in biodefense at George Mason University. In a previous job at the U.S. embassy in Moscow, she even met Vladimir Putin.
By night, an author with the pseudonym Laura Navarre has penned more than 10 erotica and romance novels with taglines like, “In a galactic mating contest where desire can be deadly, the only guys she wants are the three she can never trust.” Her series include the international espionage–themed Foreign Affairs, the historical fantasy Magick trilogy, and the futuristic sci-fi franchise Astral Heat. Lately, she’s found herself ruling as queen over her particular realm: Interstellar Angel debuted on the Amazon best-seller list for LGBTQ+ Sci-Fi.
Have any of her professional colleagues actually read her racy work? “I wouldn’t ask!” she laughs. “Although one of them referred to my ‘passionate prose,’ so they’re at least aware of it.”
Denlinger had been writing romance novels for decades, but upon starting her Ph.D., she planned to cease all creative writing for the three years of the program. That was until Adam Driver worked his magic. Not dissimilar to how Fifty Shades of Grey took Twilight in a whole new direction, the modern Laura Navarre novels were born out of fan-fiction energy.
On an overnight flight to the Philippines, unable to sleep, Denlinger started watching the in-flight movie, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and thought that the characters Kylo Ren and General Hux should end up together. Neither of the two male characters is ever identified as gay in the film; Kylo was actually given a female love interest in sequel The Rise of Skywalker. Undeterred, Denlinger started writing something based on that concept in a moment of inspiration.
This turned into her bisexual sci-fi romance novel Atomic Angel, about a woman and three men who all consensually sleep with each other … while in outer space. Denlinger knew the literary subgenre, nicknamed reverse harem, wouldn’t fly at the more traditional and conservative publishing houses at which she’d previously published.
“Romance has always been a maligned genre, even though it’s the largest mass-market paperback market in the world,” says Denlinger. “But even within romance, some nontraditional tropes are maligned by other segments of the market. I’m in the Romance Writers of America, and even within that community, I’ve paid to attend workshops where the lecturer is chuckling about those horrible reverse-harem authors.”
So she struck out on her own, teaming up with her husband and business partner to create the independent publishing company Ascendant Press. The organization has published four of her books so far—Atomic Angel, Renegade Angel, Interstellar Angel, and Anticipated Angel. Gemini Queen comes out in July, and she’s working on her latest title, Electric Angel, for next year.
The biggest benefit of going independent, she says, is creative control. For example, she gets to approve the covers before books go to press, preventing repeats of past conflicts in which visual depictions of her characters looked nothing like their written descriptions.
She also cites the broadening of subject matter, not just for her but for other independent romance authors as well. It’s critical, she says, in terms of the response her recent novels have been getting. “All of those conventions that romance authors had to follow forever are being broken by indie authors. Age gaps, teacher-student, ‘Daddy’s best friend’—all those things that used to be no-nos. But they sell!” Denlinger says. “New York doesn’t know. They never really knew, but now they really don’t know.”
The biggest challenge of going independent? “Everything.”
Everything? “Yes,” says Denlinger. “You have to figure everything out from scratch. How do I set up accounts with all of these booksellers? How do I find editors, cover artists, copy editors? How do I upload to these sites? How do I format it? How do I find reviewers? How do I market? Where are my readers? I was very fortunate that my former editor at Harlequin became a career coach.”
But beyond the greater control and autonomy, which she expected of independent status, unexpected benefits also arose. For example, she cites the opportunity to connect with her readers much more deeply than before.
“A guy wrote to me just two days ago and said, ‘I’m only going to give Interstellar Angel three stars, because we didn’t learn anything new about Dex Draven and Ben Nero, plus the title was misleading because it implies Kaia of Kryll would be in it more.’ So I replied, explaining why I chose that title and what was new about those characters. He reconsidered and left a five-star review,” Denlinger says.
Perhaps your immediate response to that story was bewilderment that a man wrote to her at all. While a 2017 Romance Writers of America survey found that men constituted 16 percent of romance-novel readers, Laura claims her male audience is larger than that, due to her more recent works’ sci-fi and action elements.
As edgy as her novels sound, Denlinger’s roots go back to a genre about as omnipresent as you can get.
“When I was a young girl, my babysitter had those old Harlequin romances on her bookshelf. I stole a few of those from her and thought they were the most amazing things ever,” she remembers. “So when I later started writing for Harlequin, it was the greatest feeling.”
Years later, she began penning her own romances, but didn’t try to publish them or even show anyone else. As a student at Michigan State University, she waited in a line out the door of a bookstore at Anne Rice’s signing for The Tale of the Body Thief. “When I finally got to meet her, I said in my shy college-girl voice, ‘I write stories, too.’ She put her pen down, looked up at me, and said, ‘Don’t let anyone ever tell you what to write.’”
Denlinger says her early stories were more traditional; her writing style has completely changed. “My first novels were straight historical romances, written in a very Philippa Gregory voice,” she says, referring to the author of the best-selling The Other Boleyn Girl. “My voice now is much more contemporary, much more edgy, much more slang. If you read a chapter from what I just published and a chapter from one of my early works, you would think they were two different authors.”
But even with that more conservative approach, upon finally taking the initiative to try getting published, literary agents turned away Denlinger for years, sending more than 50 rejections. She had finally given up, when one weekend she attended a writing conference just to improve her craft, the first such conference she’d attended in years without an ulterior motive of getting published. The woman in the line for dinner next to her told her she acquires historical romances.
“I said, ‘Oh, I actually wrote this historical romance about a reluctant lady assassin who’s blackmailed to poison Anne Boleyn. Do you want to see it?’” Denlinger says. “She said, ‘Yes, send it to me!’” That became her first published novel, 2010’s The Devil’s Mistress.
The Writer’s Life
Her success since then has been dependent on a strong work ethic.
Her schedule starts early—really early.
Denlinger sets her alarm every morning for 4:30 a.m. and writes for two hours. “By night, I’m too exhausted, but the writing has to get done,” she explains.
She primarily writes not on a computer or even longhand, but on her cellphone. Since she does both her employment work and Ph.D. work on her computer, she feels she needs a separate head space to write creatively, so using a different device helps. Plus, it allows her to write anywhere: “I’ve written a sentence or two in the grocery line, when stopped at a red light, or on the sidewalk when walking to Franconia Metro.”
You might think that a prolific writer of fantastical romances might have an eccentric love life, but the reality is much more down-to-earth. She met her husband, Steven Denlinger, at a Halloween party 25 years ago.
“He was an Oxford-trained Shakespearean scholar, but at that time, he was only doing construction work, so he had a mind and a body,” Laura says. “I remember he was in the bathroom, changing into his costume, shirtless and talking to me about Shakespeare. It was all over at that point.”
From that point on, though, their story became a little less Anastasia-and-Christian and a little more Ross-and-Rachel.
“We dated and broke up three times in the ’90s. I married someone else, moved to Russia [to work at the U.S. embassy], and didn’t see Steven for nine years,” Denlinger says. “When I came back, my husband at the time and I decided to divorce. I wasn’t interested in remarrying; I wasn’t even interested in dating. None of it.” Yet after she and Steven met up again, they were engaged within six months and married in 2012, a full 15 years after they’d originally met.
Today, he’s her primary test audience. While she refuses to show anybody else a novel for feedback until her first draft is fully written, she reads individual chapters aloud to him while he cooks dinner. (Some women would say their husband cooking dinner is itself the premise of a romantic fantasy.)
Does she ever have her male characters do things she hopes Steven will do, hoping he’ll get the hint? “It’s fiction. The fact that my heroine is with three guys does not mean I want to be with three guys in real life,” Laura clarifies. “If I wanted something, I would just tell him. He doesn’t have to discern anything from my writing.”
They live together in Springfield with their two cats, Lannister and Puddin’—or, more accurately, Lannister Louis L’Amour and York Cuthbert Herbert Walker Smee McBear, aka Puddin’. Their full names sound more like law firms, but they actually honor characters and authors from Laura’s varying literary and life influences, from Game of Thrones to Interview with the Vampire to Anne of Green Gables.
Don’t recognize the McBear reference? That’s from an as-yet-unpublished children’s story that Laura and Steven have been jointly developing, about a family of Amish cats who think they’re bears.
In addition to Electric Angel, she’s also currently penning another reverse-harem series with multiple authors, titled Dark Witch Academy. The premise: A 19-year-old enrolls in a gothic paranormal school with magical creatures, and of course she ends up with all the guys … plus her teacher. Twenty-two authors are releasing their installments back-to-back, two per week for 11 weeks, starting in June. Denlinger’s installment, Gemini Queen, is slated for July 26 (with a “gorgeous cover,” she notes).
Her best advice for aspiring writers, whether for romance or otherwise: Simply start, and the rest will follow. “I think there’s a perception that if you’re an author, you get up in the morning, you have your mimosa, you put on your feather boa, you sit down when you’re ready and wait for the muse to strike,” Denlinger says. “Really, it doesn’t matter if the muse is there or not. When it’s your job, it has to be done.”
“Get something out, because you can always fix it later,” Denlinger recommends. “As [novelist] Nora Roberts always says: You can’t fix a blank page.”