SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — When you meet Jodi Rotondo around town, it can be quite difficult to see what lies underneath the surface. It’s easy to see that she is a devoted wife and mother, and the communications coordinator at Oheb Shalom Congregation in South Orange. But you may not realize she is the bestselling author of several historical romance novels.
Rotondo’s novels, published under her pseudonym, Joanna Shupe, have garnered acclaim from both lovers of the genre and from experts in the field. In 2013, Rotondo, who has lived in South Orange since 2009, won the Romance Writers of America’s Golden Heart Award for best historical unpublished manuscript, and “Magnate,” her first Gilded Age historical romance, was named one of the Best Books of 2016 by Publishers Weekly and one of 2016’s top romances by The Washington Post and Kobo.
She has also received great acclaim from her South Orange-Maplewood neighbors who know her secret identity.
“The SOMA community is incredibly supportive for artists,” Rotondo told The Villager recently via email. “Words Bookstore in Maplewood has hosted an event for me in the past and they always carry my latest releases. It’s also nice that everyone I encounter thinks it’s cool that I write romance.”
According to Rotondo, she has found that romance novels can be a “quick and comforting read” for people experiencing tough times.
“The most moving response was after my very first novel came out. I received a card from a reader who had just lost her husband after many years of marriage,” Rotondo recalled. “She had been browsing the bookstore for a romance novel to take her mind off her grief and my book’s cover caught her eye. After finishing it, she wrote to thank me for writing a story that took her mind off her loss for a short amount of time. The letter was so heartfelt that it made me burst out in tears.
“I consider myself very lucky that people are willing to spend their hard-earned money — and time — reading my stories. It means a lot to hear from readers that I’ve made them happy.”
But Rotondo doesn’t write for the praise — she writes because it is her passion.
“I’ve always been writing. It was one of my favorite things to do as a child, and I went to college to get a journalism degree,” Rotondo said. “When I graduated, I came home and waited tables for a year. It was during this time, while reading a lot of romance novels, that my oldest sister dared me to write one of my own. I finished the novel and put it in a drawer for several years.
“When I was dating my husband I was very unhappy in my job. He encouraged me to develop a hobby to maintain my sanity and I told him about writing a romance novel in my youth. Instead of laughing or dismissing the idea he told me to get it out and he’d help me polish it up in the hopes of selling it to a publisher,” she continued. “That particular story will probably forever remain in a drawer, but the process hooked me. And best of all, my husband continues to be my biggest supporter.”
Thanks to her family and her day job, Rotondo has become a master of efficient time management.
“I try to write 1,000 words a day to stay on track for my various deadlines, so that means I spend anywhere from an hour and a half to three hours writing every day,” Rotondo said. “Since I also have a day job, I have to block out chunks of time to get the writing done, no matter what. So that means writing in the car while the girls are in gymnastics class or staying up late after they’re asleep. I guard my free time when they’re otherwise engaged to get the work done.”
When asked what she does for leisure when not working on her next novel, Rotondo could only laugh.
“When am I not working on the next book?” she joked. “Seriously, if I’m not on a tight deadline, I try and spend as much time with my family. This spring I’m helping coach my youngest daughter’s softball team.”
But free time is not really something Rotondo has to worry about much. With the Kensington Publishing Corporation, Rotondo has published seven books: “The Courtesan Duchess” in March 2015, “The Harlot Countess” in April 2015, “The Lady Hellion” in May 2015, “Tycoon” in February 2016, “Magnate” in April 2016, “Baron” in October 2016 and “Mogul” in January 2017. Her next book, “A Daring Arrangement,” will be released by Avon Books/HarperCollins in October 2017. “A Daring Arrangement” is the first of a series, which will be set in New York City’s high society during the Gilded Age.
“Writing what fulfills me creatively versus what’s marketable can be tricky. My first series was set in Regency England, the world of dukes and balls and Jane Austen. It’s the most popular setting for historical romance novels and this series sold really well,” Rotondo said. “For my next series I decided to shift to the Gilded Age (in) New York City, a time and place I absolutely love. No other authors were writing stories set there, but thankfully my publisher at the time was game for the switch.”
She did acknowledge that, while she was able to wrangle her publisher to her side, she hopes readers will follow her as well.
“Romance readers aren’t as familiar with that era and American history can immediately turn off some people,” she said. “So there’s been a steep learning curve for my current series. The positive reviews and recommendations from high-profile authors have helped, but it’s been slow for readers to warm to the idea of the Gilded Age.”
But Rotondo just knew she had to try her hand at writing romances set during this time period, one she considers fascinating. She was first drawn to New York’s high society as a teenager when she read Edith Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence,” which she still rereads every few years.
“This was when our country became a worldwide power, through inventions and innovations that changed the world. We saw rapid expansion, explosive immigration, the women’s movement and unparalleled corruption, along with incredible wealth,” Rotondo said. “On a personal level, my great-great-grandparents came through Ellis Island when they arrived in the early 20th century. I get chills when I’m in Manhattan and spy the Statue of Liberty, which has welcomed millions of visitors to our country since the Gilded Age.”
Despite loving what she does, Rotondo did admit that writing historical romance can be challenge.
“I love the research but it can drop you into a rabbit hole for hours at a time. It’s fascinating but very time consuming,” she said. “Not every author relishes writing the romantic parts but I like it. They’re full of emotion and subtext … plus kissing. Lots of kissing.”
For more information on Rotondo’s oeuvre, visit www.joannashupe.com.