HOMER -- Many new writers count themselves lucky to publish a novel with a small press publisher. Homer writer Jennifer Bernard hit a trifecta with not one, but three novels, all published in mass-market paperback by Avon Romance, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
On the strength of her first novel, "The Fireman Who Loved Me," Bernard signed a three-book contract to deliver two more books in her Bachelor Firemen series, all set in San Gabriel Fire Station No. 1, California, where the firefighters might be strong, brave, handsome and beautiful, but are unlucky in love. "The Fireman Who Loved Me" came out in April, with the second in the series, "Hot For Fireman," out May 29. The third in the series, "Sex and The Single Fireman," where the hero and heroine are both firefighters, comes out in early 2013.
The reviews have been generating the kind of heat writers love. "Sexy, sassy, often hilarious, and touching," Library Journal called "The Fireman Who Loved Me." "A hilarious and entertaining ride," Romance Times said. "A sexy, funny and solid start to a series," Publishers Weekly said.
In "The Fireman Who Loved Me," Melissa, a television station news producer, meets Harry, captain of the fire station, after Melissa's meddling grandmother wins her a date with him at a benefit auction. "The Fireman Who Loved Me" reads smoothly, with great descriptions, snappy dialogue and a subtle wit.
"Sassy" and "hilarious" could describe Bernard herself. With shoulder-length red hair and cool designer glasses, she has a twinkle in her eyes and a little mischief in her grin. There's a playfulness to her character that makes her seem younger than her age, 48. Bernard graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University with a bachelor of arts in history and literature. Her mother, Artis Bernard, is a poet and her father, John Bernard, an English professor.
"My family was quite startled to find me writing romance," Bernard said. "I've always been a huge fan of romance. It was my guilty pleasure. My parents never understood it. I just loved it. It made me happy to read it."
The eldest of four children, Bernard moved to Alaska in 2007 to visit her sister, Rebecca Bernard, an Anchorage environmental lawyer. She met her husband, Scott Wright, a carpenter and a friend of her sister, at a Fred Meyer in Anchorage. They moved to Homer in 2009 and married New Year's Eve in 2010, with Bernard becoming stepmom to Wright's two daughters, ages 7 and 21.
Bernard had always wanted to write.
"Writing stories. Reading a lot. I was a huge bookworm," she said.
After college she worked as a fact checker for Funk and Wagnall's Encyclopedia, living in a $200-a-month rent control apartment in New York City on the Lower East Side. Later, she lived on Monhegan Island, Maine -- "the best experience that probably trained me for living here," she said. "Very rugged, isolated."
She later wrote news promotions at a TV station in Portland, Maine, and then at a station in Los Angeles. Bernard moved with a friend to LA to try to break into screenwriting, but that didn't work out. Still, writing screenplays taught her a lot about storytelling.
"I was visually oriented, but my heart was always in the novel way of thinking," she said. "I learned a lot about pacing, a lot about staging," Bernard said of screenplays.
She did publish a few short stories in literary journals, including one, "The Olympics of Ordinary Movements," that was made into a short film.
In 2006 she started writing novels. The first one she considers a learning novel, but "The Fireman Who Loved Me" clicked.
"I started this one and I thought, OK, this is the real one," Bernard said. "I felt more that I knew what I was doing."
Bernard sold her series after signing with an agent, Alexandra Machinist, that she met at a Romance Writers of America convention in Seattle. Bernard credits joining RWA with getting started -- "the best advice I ever got," she said.
She had heard Machinist talk and asked her later if she could send her a pitch for her novel. Machinist told her to do it right then. Bernard wound up sending her another novel, "Princess of Karma," and on the strength of that, Machinist took her on, but she told Bernard it was a bit too out there for a debut novel. She wrote "The Fireman Who Loved Me," and Machinist sold it to Avon on Thanksgiving 2010. Then Avon asked if Bernard had a second novel, thinking to make a series. Bernard had the second book halfway done and signed a three-book contract. The third book she wrote under contract, with a deadline of next fall that she's already met.
"There was somebody who had already paid me for it," she said. "It was one of those feet to the fire moments. Can I do this?"
Though romance writing has specific expectations, like always having a happy ending, it also has challenges.
"Your job as a writer is to fulfill those expectations while keeping it fresh and interesting," Bernard said. "You're focusing on a love relationship. If you don't do those things, your reader is going to be disappointed, but you have to do that in a way that hasn't been done before."
Bernard is working on another romance novel, "How To Marry a Kajillionaire," set in Silicon Valley. She hopes the Bachelor Fireman books will make her name known.
"Who knows what we can do next?" she said.
By MICHAEL ARMSTRONG