Peggy Jaeger gets up well before the sun every morning — 4 a.m. — and it’s off to work. In her case, though, she’s still wearing pajamas, and her office is just one staircase up from her second-floor bedroom in her Keene home.
She sits down to a keyboard in an attic aerie and begins another day as a romance novelist, conjuring stories of love. Bookstore browsers are familiar with the genre, identified primarily by conventional covers of two people in passionate embrace.
“I’ve been a writer my whole life; I like to tell a story,” says Jaeger, 58, who may be recognizable to many in the area because for two decades, she was the optical technician who fit people with contact lenses at Cheshire Medical Center.
Jaeger has published 16 books and just received a contract from a New York publisher for three more. Among the titles are “A Shot at Love,” “Dearly Beloved,” “The Voices of Angels” and “Skater’s Waltz.”
“I’m not yet at the point where I can support myself by writing books,” she says, but nonetheless they sell well, and she’s developed a loyal following. Her novels are available online in book form or as e-books, and locally at the Toadstool bookstores.
Jaeger will be one of three guest speakers at the annual “Evening with Authors” Friday, April 26, at 6 p.m. at the community room of Stone Arch Village in Keene. The event is sponsored by the Keene Area American Association of University Women. The other two speakers are Michelle Arnosky Sherburne, a Vermont historian who writes about the Underground Railroad; and Thomas Farmen, who writes about his dog, Bessie.
Romance novels are very big business, accounting for more than $1.2 billion in annual sales, according to the Romance Writers of America, matching the size of the mystery and science fiction/fantasy genres combined. Their readership of about 30 million Americans is about 84 percent women, with about half of those readers between the ages of 30 and 54.
Jaeger’s passion for writing began as a young girl.
Born in Brooklyn, she was the only child of a couple that separated when she was very young, leaving her to be raised by her mother alone. That was rare during that time in the Irish Catholic community in which they lived, “making us the outsiders,” she says. “My mother was vilified by the divorce.”
It was a lonesome existence for a little girl, she notes.
“We didn’t have a lot of money. We moved a lot,” she says. “I wanted brothers and sisters.”
By the time she was 8, her mother had remarried.
“My mom and stepfather both worked. I was one of the first latchkey kids around, way before that was common,” she says. “I went to the library every day after school, five days a week. I read everything I could, from Nancy Drew mysteries to Agatha Christie novels.”
She purchased a pink diary, “the ones they had back then, with a lock and latch on them,” and began writing.
“I filled that little pink book up in about eight weeks — not with meanderings about my daily life, but with stories about a girl who went on adventures, had a big family and lots of friends, and discovered new and exciting people and places every day,” she says in a brief author’s interview on InD’tale, a website for fans of fiction.
She kept writing.
“My family put the ‘dys’ in dysfunction,” she explains, and in her secret writings, she invented stories about stable, “normal” families who cared for one another, who loved one another.
It was during those years that she developed a penchant for carefully observing and listening to people, conjuring made-up stories about them, creating a world of characters and plot lines in her head. She still does that constantly, she says, offering as an example a woman she recently spotted at Panera with a very nervous manner, who was constantly checking her phone.
“Was she waiting to meet her lover? Was she involved in some crime? Was her child seriously ill?” Jaeger asks.
“Stories come to me all the time — just by watching people, imagining the situations they may be facing. I’m always inventing stories as I watch people. My mind doesn’t shut down.”
For that reason, she says, people find it difficult to watch TV or movies with her. “I can tell them within 10 minutes who did it or how the story’s going to end.”
When Jaeger was 12, she read the novel “Pride and Prejudice” and fell in love with it. The 1813 Jane Austen classic charts the emotional development of its protagonist, Elizabeth Bennet, who learns the error of making hasty judgments and comes to appreciate the difference between the superficial and the essential.
“I probably didn’t understand back then everything of what that book was about, but I loved it; I loved the cadence of the language. I’ve read it again since then and of course understand it now,” she says.
During high school, she recalls showing promise as a writer, and teachers encouraged her. However, she was also interested in taking care of people. She enrolled in Hunter College in Manhattan, which is part of the City University of New York system, and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in nursing. After that, she earned a master’s degree in nursing, with a specialty in administration, from Wagner College in Staten Island.
These years were difficult for her. “I really had no family; my life was in tatters,” Jaeger explains. “No one loved me.”
Then, something happened that changed her life. “I went to church, and the gospel that day was about how God loves you. It suddenly dawned on me that it’s OK that I was different, because God loves me, and that there’s a purpose in my life.”
She went on to work at a hospital in Staten Island, where she met her husband, Larry Jaeger, an intern there.
The couple moved to Superior, Wis., for seven years, where her husband practiced medicine and she supervised a home for Alzheimer’s patients. In 1994, by then with a young daughter, Erin, in tow, they moved to Keene when Larry took a position as an ophthalmologist at Cheshire Medical Center.
Peggy Jaeger eventually wound up working at Cheshire Medical, too, fitting contact lenses. “They asked me to work for just a year, to replace someone who had quit. I ended up being there 20 years,” she says. All the while — though not yet writing books — she was dreaming up stories in her head.
Then, a life event turned her into a novelist.
“In 2014, I was going through the worst menopause Mother Nature ever bestowed on a female and was up all night sweating and hot-flashing. I don’t think I slept more than one hour a night for three years running,” she says in the author’s profile interview on the website.
So, to pass the time in a productive way, she wrote. Soon, she had a novel on her hands and made an agreement with her husband that if she could get it published, she’d quit her job and begin her new career as a romance writer.
She entered the manuscript in a writers contest because she thought judges might give her a critique of her work. “I wanted to find out if anybody else thought it was any good.”
To her surprise, she won. From that came her first contract with a publisher, The Wild Rose Press, in 2015. She quit her job. Then she wrote her second novel, and then a third, and so on. She has just signed a new contract for three books with Kensington Publishing of New York.
She is a disciplined writer, devoting up to eight or 10 hours a day to her craft, with two of them dedicated to promoting her books through social media, which she describes as an almost mandatory marketing task these days for all writers below the rank of superstar author. She writes a blog called “Writing is my Oxygen” and maintains a robust presence on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and Tumblr. She also reviews books by other authors.
A study of her various social media platforms reveals a bit more about Jaeger. For example, she loves scary movies (but not slasher films), she earned a perfect English score on the SAT, and her left eye is significantly smaller than her right, the result of two cataract surgeries and two retinal detachments, plus facial fractures from an accident as a baby. Also, she can sit in full lotus position and has vocal cord polyps, which she explains is why she sounds like a “big smoker,” although she’s never had a cigarette in her life.
“Well, what can I say about Peggy,” her longtime friend Sue Kowalczyk of Swanzey asks rhetorically. “Honest, warm-hearted, inspiring, knowledgeable, passionate and supportive — a wonderful person.”
Jaeger says friendships are extremely important to her. “I have a lot of friends, but I work in a lonely profession.”
Despite that isolation, she clearly enjoys what she does. “I’m living my dream,” she says.
Romance fiction, she explains, is often looked down upon by the authors, and readers, of what is considered more “highbrow” fiction. She dismisses that notion and says the genre can feature wonderful writing that constitutes quality literature. There are also new sub-genres within the category, she notes, including gay romance and the trending “seasoned” romance, for readers in their 50s and 60s.
“Romance is a lifelong thing,” she says.
And there’s sex, too, she adds, which is also included in her books.
Jaeger explains though, that to be true to the genre, a romance novel must feature a happy resolution — a “happily-ever-after” ending. That’s a storyline formula that’s compatible with her thoughts about life.
“Everyone deserves to be loved, and everyone deserves to be ‘happily ever after,’ ” she says. “To many people, that sounds schmaltzy or cheesy, or naïve. But there’s so much darkness in the world today, and love is the one universal emotion that we all want.”