Post Author: Rev. Amber Belldene
I first began writing romance novels when my twins were five months old; I was hooked up to the good old Medela breast pump and hunched over the laptop. I’d recently fallen back in love with reading the genre, with its unabashed celebration of female sexuality and romantic love. I was adjusting to my new, stretched-out, machine-milked mom body and what it was like to have two new humans and their dirty diapers in the middle of my marriage. Romance novels helped me hold on to my sense of self, my sexual desire, and to remember my husband was my real-life romance hero even when we were sleep-deprived, cranky, automatons.
At the exact moment when I had the least margin to begin a creative enterprise, I decided to try writing a novel. It wasn’t a Christian, inspirational romance, nor was it ‘sensual’ and full of euphemisms. It was explicit, because I found it liberating to write about people having awkward and imperfect, yet glorious and redemptive sex.
Initially, my books were a dirty secret. I’m the chaplain at an Episcopal day school, after all. The last thing in the world I needed was the thirteen-year-olds I teach reading one of my ‘climactic’ scenes. As I built an online author presence, I dangled my priest-who-writes-romance identity as a titillating hook, but I remained sheepish with colleagues and secretive about my day job when I mingled with writers.
Still, slowly, I began to think of myself as a real writer. I talked with friends about my dual vocations and wrote a lot about the intersection of sexuality and spirituality. I dreamed up my tagline, “Desire is Divine,” and signed my first publishing contract.
Before my first book came out, I confessed to my bishop over lunch at an Italian restaurant. While he twirled fettuccini on his fork, he asked me all kinds of questions about the plot and premise of my vampire romance novel. We laughed so hard we attracted stares, but he also took my writing seriously, and I remain incredibly grateful for his support. Broader and broader circles of clergy colleagues reacted in similar ways. Online, strangers reached out to me for pastoral advice. They longed to hear the good news that they could love Jesus and also enjoy sexy books. They wanted advice about twenty-first century Christian sexual ethics. I’m not an ethicist, but it turns out fiction is a great way to explore our moral dilemmas.
So far, my best-selling book has been Not A Mistake, the first in my Hot Under Her Collar series which I describe as “sex in the city goes to seminary.” When I was at my diocesan clergy conference last year, folks asked me to read an excerpt from it at the talent show. I was so nervous, perched on a stool in front of a microphone, the paperback trembling in my hands. Then my generous bishop called out praise for my sexy vampires, and I found my voice, which I had to raise above the hoots and giggles of my colleagues as I read.
Thanks to all this encouragement, I no longer feel ashamed of my books. I’m an apologist for the romance genre and an advocate for more frank conversations about sexuality in the church. I pretty much forgot I’d ever thought of my writing as a dirty secret.
If only that were the end of the story. (We romance readers do so love happy endings!)
I returned to school after clergy conference, and my boss called me into her office to let me know some parents had discovered Amber Belldene on Facebook and were very upset. My boss has no qualms about my books and respects my rationale for writing them. Her position at school is that we cannot dictate what employees do in their private time.
However, a few parents felt shocked. One threatened to withdraw her children from the school. Another equated me with sex abusers. I don’t know who said these things, because they were reported to me second hand.
Thank God for the parent who spoke to me directly. When she sat across from me in my office, I was impatient. Why couldn’t everyone see that writing romance novels was actually holy and wholesome, not prurient and predatory? But she kindly challenged me to find compassion for the upset parties. After sitting with her advice for a while, I remembered what should have been obvious to me all along–their upset was rooted in the same things that had inspired me from the start: the seeming disconnect between our sexual selves and spiritual selves and the church’s failure to speak honestly about what healthy, holy, human sexuality looks like in the twenty-first century.
Still, they didn’t come to talk to me. I found myself squashing paranoid thoughts around campus. Is she the one who’s mad at me? Is he the one who thinks I’m as bad as a pedophile? Twice, in restaurants around town I sunk low in my chair when a school family walked in, just in case the mom elbowed the dad and said, “Hey, look, there’s our smutty chaplain.” The buzz mostly blew over once the parents realized they hadn’t discovered a dirty secret, but something I had simply chosen to keep private.
My shame mostly fizzled out too, once I re-grounded myself in the integrity of both my vocations. Sometimes I still have to tell myself it’s not my job to meet other people’s standards of a superficial kind of holiness, but to gently reframe what it means to be holy. And I can occasionally tell from Facebook stats that the upset moms are watching my Facebook fan page (you have 115 new views, 0 new likes), which has made me gun shy about social media and left me feeling isolated from my writer pals. I pray some day soon those moms will come to me and we can have an honest, reconciling conversation.
In the meantime, I’m still writing. It no longer has the blush of first love, but it still makes me feel alive. It has cost me something, and I’m called to stick with it anyway. That’s the kind of happy ending we get in real life–a little complicated, but still full of joy and grace. And she wrote (mostly) happily ever after.
Amber Belldene is always reading racy books at the most inappropriate times, and has been observed ogling her Kindle in the church parking lot. Even as a kid, she hid novels inside the service bulletin to read during sermons, an irony that is not lost on her when she preaches these days. Her romances have been published by Omnific, Entangled, and Lyrical/Kensington. She lives with her husband and two children in California (Where else would a bishop admit he’d read a vampire romance novel?). The best way to get news of Amber’s new releases is to sign up for her newsletter. Amber-spottings are rare on social media these days, but you can learn more about her books at amberbelldene.com.
Image by: anonymous
Used with permission