There’s so much I wanted to blog about today—I’ve just returned from the Baltimore Book Festival; I was in Chicago doing appearances; it’s Banned Books Week—but I’ve just received the shocking news that my old friend, Kate Duffy, Kensington Romance Editor Extraordinaire and Editorial Director, died rather suddenly on Monday. It seems unreal to me, and I’d like to take a moment to pay tribute to my pal.
Kate Duffy was one of the most bad-ass dames I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. And she was a dame, in all the best ways. Kate was not a small woman in any sense of the word. When she entered a room, you were aware of her presence. It was like having the Queen visit; you expected a half-wave and some Corgis. What you usually got was a hilarious retort of some kind followed by a Puckish grin or a naughty cackle. Kate was, quite simply, an icon in the romance industry, launching and nurturing the careers of many beloved romance writers.
After my son was born, I quit my job and went to work for Kensington Publishing two days a week as a freelance copywriter. One of my duties was to write copy for the bazillion romance books that came across my desk. I’ll admit, when I first started, I didn’t have a lot of appreciation for romance. I tended to think of it as “less than,” a sentiment, I’ve come to realize, is about the ways we do not value a genre that is written largely by women for women about women’s fantasies and sexual desires. People don’t like that. It makes them uncomfortable, and so they tend to denigrate it. Kate helped me come to see that. She was passionate about romance, if you’ll pardon the pun, and her enthusiasm and love for both the genre and her authors was infectious. It was Kate who introduced me to the delights of MaryJanice Davidson, Lori Foster, Eloisa James, and Judith McNaught, among others. I looked forward to those mornings when I would sit in the chair across from her desk while she told me about the books I’d be writing copy for with the sort of rhapsodic bliss I use to describe great meals. “You are going to die over this one,” she’d say, placing both hands on the desk with great fanfare, before launching into a fabulous Kate book talk. She’d ask me what I thought. Sometimes we’d argue; usually, later, when I’d come back raving, she’d grin and say, “Didn’t I tell you?” She loved being right. Good for her that she often was.
She was also one of my biggest cheerleaders as a writer, and when my first book came out, no one was more excited than La Kate. I steadfastly refuse to Google myself, but Kate would, and on the Monday and Tuesday mornings I would show up, I’d hear her shouting to me from her office, “Well, if it isn’t Herself! Get in here. I’ve got something to show you.” She talked me up wherever she could, and I don’t know if I was ever able to get past my inhibitions to sufficiently tell her how much I appreciated it. She made me feel like a million bucks. I know she did the same for her authors.
Kate was an Irish Boston Brahmin, from a well-known acting family. Her mother trod the boards, and Kate’s uncle was the famous Peter Boyle. (the actor who played Frankenstein’s monster in Mel Brooks’ classic, “Young Frankenstein.) Kate herself was a larger-than-life character. A chain smoker. A Diet Coke drinker. A sardonic commenter on the publishing scene who never lost her pie-eyed joy for the books she loved. She was quick with a withering witticism. Her closest equivalent might be Dorothy Parker, but Miss Parker fused with Bruce Willis in “Die Hard.” You did NOT want to piss Kate off. The lady could throw down. But I appreciated her directness, her eye-rolling frankness, her wicked asides and her breadth of knowledge about books, music, art, theatre, and politics. Her interests were many; her opinions were plentiful. I secretly relished the irony of a romance editor who looked like she could probably clean and assemble her own AK-47 in under ten seconds, a lit cigarette dangling from her lower lip and a mischievous gleam in her eye. I love this memorial from Sarah at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books: "When I tried to explain to my husband why I was so blown away by meeting Kate and talking with her at RWA, I couldn’t figure out how to explain who she was in romance. She wasn’t just an editor or a fan of the genre. ‘She’s the Julia Child of romance,’ I said."
The details are murky, but the word is that Kate had been secretly battling cancer. It would not surprise me to know that she would keep it a secret, that she would continue to ride into battle every day without expecting or wanting special treatment or sympathy. No doubt she would have shrugged off any such attempts with her crisp Boston toughness. Kate Duffy was real dame’s dame. A top-notch editor. A tough cookie with a softy, gooey center. A passionate promoter of romance. A good person to have in your corner and a charming dinner companion. I can’t quite believe she’s gone, like someone that formidable should go on forever. I suppose she does through books. She will be greatly missed.
Here’s a link to a little more about Kate, if you’d like to read it. And there’s a 25-second clip of her at an RWA conference that makes me smile, because it is so Kate. ciaralira.wordpress.com/2008/08/06/kate-duffy-says-get-off-the-internet-and-write/
As for me, I think I will honor Kate the way she would most like to be honored—by reading a romance novel and enjoying every minute of it. Rest in Peace, Kate. I hope there’s Diet Coke and Lord Byron wherever you are.