Sit down with romance author Jessica Blair

The author has been nominated for Romantic Novel of the Year, but there is a twist

Sitting in “Jessica Blair’s” chocolate-box cottage 40 miles inland from the Whitby setting of so many storm-tossed romantic sagas, the conversation turns naturally to the reaction of readers on meeting “her”.

“Yes. Some people are surprised. I got an email recently from a woman whose daughter had sent her a photo of me signing books in Whitby. She said she was flabbergasted but said 'I love your books and keep writing them,'” the author laughs.

With 23 novels to her name, Blair is on course this year to seal her reputation as the grande dame of British romantic fiction. With a loyal following which sees her books more regularly borrowed from UK libraries than those of Stephen King or John Le Carré, she is currently vying for the career-crowning title of Romantic Novel of the Year.

But, of course, Blair is not a woman meaning “she” would be the first “he” to win the award. “She” is in fact a twinkly-eyed, 90-year-old war veteran called Bill Spence who has divided his working life between running a village post office with his wife and knocking out two books a year - and still counting.

Little surprise then that he feels his gender has proved no impediment to finding a willing audience.

“There was a big difference (between male and female writers) but I think we are not so much apart as we were once in the day. We men understand women a bit more than we once did and I had a wife and three daughters. My wife always read the books and when the girls left school they took over,” he adds.

There is little new about writers seeking to conceal their identity. From George Elliot to JK Rowling, literary gender-bending is a common enough practice among women. Although not unheard of, it is far less routine among male writers.

But Mr Spence is not the sort of chap who has to worry about others’ perceptions of his manliness. Born in Middlesbrough he trained as a teacher but signed up to the Royal Air Force in July 1942 going on to fly 36 Lancaster missions over Germany.

Some of Jessica Blair's novels Some of Jessica Blair's novels (Mark Pinder)  

“You didn’t show that you were frightened. You are trained to do a job. Yes some people did fold up”, he admits. “It is all very well criticising Bomber Command but the critics tend to forget that they were doing it to us at places like Coventry.”

Having cheated the one in four chances of crashing or being shot down, Mr Spence first tried his hand at writing on the month-long troop ship voyage to Southern Africa. Unimpressed with the product, and rejecting a commission, he returned to the beautiful North Yorkshire village of Ampleforth to be with his late wife Joan, where he has lived ever since.

He answered the call of a publisher looking for war novels in 1959 with Dark Hell, based on his flying experiences but then began writing Westerns, receiving life-changing advice from Alan Boon, founder of the Mills & Boon empire who put him in touch with an eventual publisher.

Thirty six cowboy books followed with exciting titles such as Feud Riders and Guns Along the Brazo, all produced under a variety of exotic sounding pseudonyms including Kirk Ford and Floyd Rogers.

But it was his interest in the Yorkshire whaling industry that persuaded him to switch genres. “I think that romance is a misunderstood term because there is romance in all fiction really. It gets confused with love stories and Mills & Boon. But I am not putting them down; you have to have talent to do that. I admire anybody that can,” he says.

Mr Spence confesses that he has no interest in the likes of 50 Shades of Grey – although he refuses to criticise it. Sex, for him, is something to be alluded to, a gentle plot device. “It depends what you mean by sex scenes. There is no need unless it advances the story. I think you can hint at sex which makes the reader’s mind work at it. They might be a lot sexier than you,” he laughs.

The Spence children never cared that their father was making his living from pretending to be a woman. “I was still dad,” he says. No one in the village turned a hair either. “I don’t know if my wife was amused by it. It was getting me published and that was the main object of my writing,” he recalls. And his fellow female romance writers? “We all get on very well. We all like telling a good story.”

Arts & Entertainment
Maisie Williams of Game of Thrones now
tvMajor roles that grow with their child actors are helping them to steal the show on TV
Arts & Entertainment
Customers browse through Vinyl Junkies record shop in Berwick Street, Soho, London
music

Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
ComedyCollier was once told there were "too many women" on bill
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
music

VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
film

Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatre

Review: Of Mice and Men

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit