In 2020 the tightly knit and passionate world of self-published romance literature was shocked by the news that the novelist Susan Meachen, following bullying by other writers, had taken her own life.
Meachen’s grieving fans funded her funeral costs, according to members of the romance community, and helped edit and promote her final book. Fellow authors released an anthology dedicated to Meachen, with the dedication page calling plaintively, or pointedly, to “keep bullying where it belongs – in fiction”.
Recriminations also came. Meachen’s death “tore the book community apart”, the writer Samantha A Cole recently told Rolling Stone. “[E]veryone started pointing fingers at people who allegedly bullied her. Innocent people were accused. It took months for the tension to die down.”
There is one wrinkle, however: last week Meachen turned out to be very much alive. Confused and angry romance fans believe that Meachen, like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn spying on their own funeral, spent more than two years indulging in a death hoax.
Meachen announced her resurrection in a Facebook group she’d previously created. “I debated on how to do this a million times and still not sure if it’s right or not,” she wrote. “There’s going to be tons of questions… I am in a good place now and I am hoping to write again. Let the fun begin.”
Meachen’s post suggested that her family had spread the story that she was dead after she survived a suicide attempt, saying that they “did what they thought was best for me”. The Guardian could not reach Meachen for comment.
Romance literature is written to strict plot formulas: friends become lovers, enemies become lovers and lovers become lovers; handsome Navy Seals, firefighters and fallen aristocrats always turn out to have overflowing hearts and, often, libidos. Fans get upset when these tropes aren’t respected.
Now romance readers are grappling with having been seduced by one of literature’s oldest plot devices – a literary concept deployed, in this case, for what may have been less than noble reasons.
So far the romance world does not seem persuaded by Meachen’s account of surviving a suicide attempt – and particularly angry at the way her alleged deception exploited suicide. In an enraged Facebook post, Cole wrote: “Excuse me while I now go get shitfaced in memory of coworkers and friends who I know really did commit suicide.”
It is also unclear what, if any, bullying Meachen suffered.
In a rambling and poorly edited Amazon bio, Meachen describes herself as “an avid reader as far back as I can recall” and a “wife, mom, meme, and friend” who lives in “the Southeastern corner of Tennessee with my husband of 24 years with our two cats and our four snakes”.
She came on to the scene around 2017 and went on to publish 14 novels and novellas on Amazon under her own name (romance novelists often write under multiple aliases), with titles such as Stolen Moments, Smokey Mtn Love and Chance Encounter. One novel, Never/Ever, involves a protagonist learning to love again after her high school boyfriend kills himself.
Romance is the bestselling of all book genres – a nearly $1.5bn market, as of 2021 – with self-published, or “indie”, romance a particularly booming industry.
Using Amazon’s Kindle self-publishing platform, writers can sell their stories as e-books directly to consumers. The most successful writers make lucrative careers, but competition is fierce and they must pay for marketing and other costs – sometimes thousands of dollars in online advertising – themselves.
Meachen’s success as a romance writer seems to have been modest, but she became a well-known figure in the community in part due to a Facebook group called The Ward, which she organized, for romance writers, fans and aspiring writers. The Ward’s more than 700 members were heartbroken when, in September 2020, news of Meachen’s death began to spread.
“I am saddened and shocked to learn that an author in the indie book community took her own life due to being bullied,” the writer Cassandra Jones said on Facebook. “My heart aches at the loss of this amazing woman and wonderful friend. When will people see this isn’t a competition? … You will be missed Susan Meachen.”
Confusingly, Meachen’s Facebook account continued posting about her books. In early October, someone writing from that account and describing herself as her daughter confirmed Meachen’s death.
“Sorry I thought everyone on this page knew my mom passed away,” the person wrote. “Dead people don’t post on social media.” She added that she had been “on this account for a week now finishing her last book my wedding gift from her”.
Members of the romance community organized a charity auction to benefit Meachen’s family, according to the writer Candace Adams, and – at the urging of Meachen’s alleged daughter – rallied to promote her final book.
In the two years since, Meachen’s social media accounts continued to post sporadically, with the poster usually claiming to be a member of Meachen’s family or a volunteer assistant. There was an odd pattern to these posts: they contained spelling mistakes and malapropisms that Meachen had been known to make, including a tic in which she wrote the phrase “supposed to” as “post to”.
Recently web sleuths also discovered that Meachen appears to have been uploading videos to TikTok for much of the time she was ostensibly dead.
Not long after Meachen admitted that she was alive, the website Upstream Reviews published a Q&A-style interview in which Meachen defended her conduct – but the website’s editors have since issued a retraction saying they are unsure if the person to whom they spoke was actually Meachen.
“[H]er grammar seems to have improved significantly,” someone observed on Twitter, after reading the Q&A. “It’s possible she took a few courses while dead, though.”
This is not the strangest scandal to afflict the romance world in recent years: in 2022 the self-published romance writer Nancy Brophy, author of an essay entitled “How to Murder Your Husband”, was convicted of murdering her husband.
During her trial, Brophy said that “ghost gun” parts she had ordered online were purchased as part of research for a forthcoming novel. The jury was not persuaded, and Brophy is currently serving a life sentence in Oregon.