- Associated Press - Monday, May 25, 2015

HOMER, Alaska (AP) - As romance writers go, Jennifer Bernard said she still thinks of herself as a newbie - even though she has published six novels, three novellas and a short story in three years. That’s faster than some Homer boat builders crank out skiffs.

“It’s odd to say. It’s a lot of books,” Bernard said in a phone interview from Dallas, Texas, where she was attending the Romantic Times Booklovers Conference.

On May 26, Avon Books publishes Bernard’s seventh novel, “All of Me,” and the first in a new series, Love Between the Bases. Bernard has signed a three-book contract with Avon. Her first six novels, the Bachelor Firemen series, were set at the fictitious San Gabriel Firehouse. This time, Bernard sets her series in Kilby, Texas, with the backdrop of the minor league Kilby Catfish baseball team.

A Harvard University graduate and the daughter of a poet and an English professor, Bernard, 51, has developed a playful, sassy style. Consider her opening sentences in “All of Me”:

“In Caleb Hart’s first start as a Kilby Catfish, he set a minor league record - and not the good kind. By the top of the fourth inning he’d given up seven runs, five homers, three walks, and nearly taken El Paso Chihuahua Steven Hunter’s nose off with a wayward fastball. Sweat was running down his back in rivulets of failure, and under his brand-new cap, with its cartoonish logo, his head felt like it might spontaneously explode.”

By the end of the first chapter, Caleb has run into - actually, she runs into him - Sadie Merritt. From his point of view, Caleb describes her as “alive and in motion. She looked to be in her early twenties and had a sort of student-gypsy vibe about her. Her lips curved in a way that suggested she liked to laugh . and talk and tease.”

And Caleb? “He’d smelled like sun-heated flesh and oiled leather. He’d radiated furious energy, a kind of restless power, as if he wanted to shake up the world and put it back the way he wanted,” Sadie describes him.

Sadie works for the mayor and has been tasked with delivering a petition to the Catfish owner and manager seeking to move the team out of town because they’re so rowdy. Also, her reputation has been smeared by an ex-boyfriend. Naturally, Caleb and Sadie become attracted to each other.

“I’m all about the sparks,” Bernard said of romance writing. “That’s the fun part.”

So why the switch from firefighters to baseball players? Bernard said she’s a lifelong baseball fan, rooting for the local team as she moved around the country: the St. Louis Cardinals, the Houston Astros, the New York Mets and the Los Angeles Dodgers.

“I love baseball. I’ve been a baseball fan my whole life,” Bernard said. “I like the fun, the playful atmosphere combined with the drive to perfect your skill, excel at what you’re doing, what you love to do, what you’re gifted with.”

With its long season, fans have the time to get to know baseball players and the team. Minor league baseball is even looser. The players joke, pull pranks and the games have all sorts of goofy promotions. The players are “on the cusp of their destination,” Bernard said.

“They’re still on the edge. You don’t know yet if they’re going to break through,” she said. “It gives them a hunger I really wanted them to get into.”

“All of Me” allows Bernard to make a parallel between love and baseball.

“Falling in love is one of the peak experiences in life. What I’m going for is that peak experience, but also the peak experience of making your dream happen,” she said. “Baseball is all about dreams. Even when they don’t work out, you have that time of living it for a while. It’s magical to me.”

Going for a dream also applies to writing. Three years after her first novel, Bernard said she’s making a living at writing, but still learning.

“A lot. I’m very, very happy that I can keep doing this,” she said. “Talk about dreams coming true.”

Not that she doesn’t dream for more, she said.

“I feel like I’m off to a good start,” she said. “To be able to do this is amazing, but I also want to build a house in Hawaii.”

Bernard has been in Alaska since 2007, when she came here to visit her sister, Rebecca Bernard, an Anchorage environmental lawyer. She met her husband, Scott Wright, 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.

The Bachelor Firemen series came about after Bernard lived in Los Angeles. Now that she’s been in Alaska, is there a novel or series set in Alaska in Bernard’s future?

Maybe, she said. The Bachelor Firemen series was set in a firehouse staffed by paid firefighters. Bernard would like to do a series set in a volunteer firehouse, with maybe one or two paid members - kind of like in Homer. The firefighters would have occupations outside of the fire hall. That kind of book could be set in Alaska.

“The research would be so easy,” she said.

Though she loves writing - and reading - romances, Bernard said she has lots more going on. While playful, her writing has complexity and depth. In her characters, the physical attraction might set passions aflame, but her men and women fall in love for deeper qualities like intelligence and humor.

Bernard said she’s glad to see romance fiction gaining a new respect. It’s breaking ground for women in industry, a literature written mostly by women for women, with women in key roles as editors and publishers.

“What could be more pro-women than that? But it gets all this disdain for a genre,” Bernard said. “I don’t worry about that too much. I love what I do and I love my readers.”


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