“What if they turn you into a crazy drug dealer and I’m a manic depressive transvestite?” That was Anne Miller’s initial question to her husband, Michael Davoli, when they were contacted by a publisher about starring in a new genre of romance novel—one based on real couples. “You don’t know what to do when strangers say, ‘Let us tell a fictionalized version of your story, please,’ ” says Miller. “You have to think the worst.”
The couple, who live in Albany, N.Y., was discovered by HCI Books, which publishes inspirational non-fiction titles such as the Chicken Soup for the Soul series, after their wedding appeared in the New York Times’ “Vows” section. HCI was starting a line of “reality-based romance” books—a unique literary venture. The first three novels, marketed under the banner “Vows: Life Romanticized,” will launch in October. They’ll be penned by bestselling authors, who between them have published more than 150 romance novels: Alison Kent (A Long, Hard Ride), Julie Leto (Stripped), and Judith Arnold (Barefoot in the Grass). Miller and Davoli’s story should capture readers, says HCI editorial director Michele Matrisciani, because it has the elements of a juicy romance: “The conﬂict, drama, love, quirkiness, personality.”
It’s also rich in innuendo-laced encounters. Before they started dating, Davoli considered renting an apartment in Miller’s building. They ran into each other in the lobby, and Miller offered to “watch his dog if he moved in,” she recalls. Davoli took the place above hers. When he got locked out one night, Davoli knocked on Miller’s door for help. “So I picked his lock,” she says, “and after that we went on our first official date.” They fell in love—buoyed by their enthusiasm for sports. “Going upstairs to watch the game” became code for “something else.”
Of course, their romance included the requisite tension. Miller roots for the Orioles, Davoli is a Yankees fan. Davoli is obsessed with the band Phish; Miller doesn’t share his zeal. And the biggie: Davoli has Tourette’s syndrome, which causes tics—and prevents him from wrapping his arms around Miller, for instance, as they fall asleep.
For Matrisciani, this aching detail provided the perfect title for the book, which will be written by Leto: Hard to Hold. The two other novels also have libido-boosting names: The Icing on the Cake, by Kent, is about Todd Bracken and Michelle Snow. HCI found their story in the Washington Post earlier this year. They met through a matchmaker website. The only hitch: they lived in different cities. From a distance, he supported her dream of opening a cupcakery. As the business experienced ups and downs, so did they.
The third book, Meet Me in Manhattan, by Arnold, is based on Ted Skala and Erika Fredell, whose wedding was also in the NYT. They reconnected 15 years after she broke his heart in high school. The attraction was still hot, but they were scared of getting hurt again. What’s more, Skala was already in a relationship. “There is just a lot of drama,” says Olivia Rupprecht, the series developer. “And the complications that come along with life.”
That these books are based on true stories should be central to their appeal. “These are difficult, troubling times,” says Rupprecht, who also writes as Mallory Rush (Date with the Devil, Between the Sheets). “I think it sends a very uplifting, inspiring message that it’s not just make-believe. We really do have happy stories.” In fact, happy endings are mandatory in romance novels, whose readers are usually college-educated women, aged 31 to 49, in committed relationships.
For the “Vows” books, each couple filled out a questionnaire about their courtship. Some volunteered additional info—first emails, old invitations. The authors get to exercise creative licence by changing settings and creating dialogue. The couples will read the final manuscript for libel or defamation, but “we can’t be held up because they don’t like that it’s not the right car,” says Matrisciani. So far, Miller says she and Davoli feel confident and excited. “We get the sense they’re trying to put the book together in a way that is true to the story and to who we are.”
What about the steamy love scenes romance novels are famous for? The goal is “something a little edgier than PG-13, maybe a soft R,” says Rupprecht, referring to film ratings. “We want to make sure our books are tasteful.” Miller, who says this experience has been “flattering,” is realistic. “I do expect that there might be a couple of pages that we would probably tell our mothers to skip.”